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Northumberland 2018/19

Efficiency

How efficient is the fire and rescue service at keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks?

Last updated 19/06/2019
Requires improvement

An efficient fire and rescue service will manage its budget and spend money properly and appropriately. It will align its resources to its risk. It should try to keep costs down without compromising public safety. Future budgets should be based on robust and realistic assumptions. Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency requires improvement.

This is a fire service which has already had to make significant savings. It has done this by reducing the numbers of support staff and management, and by changing its operating model. But the service is struggling to align its plans to the significant cuts in staffing it has made. The cuts have created gaps that have affected its activities, including its core functions of prevention and protection, as well as its broader ability to change and improve.

The service is reliant on staff working extra hours to complete workloads and some staff are full-time firefighters and provide on-call firefighting cover during their time off. The service isn’t managing this effectively to support staff wellbeing.

The service has a clear strategic intent to do more collaborative work. While there are examples of collaboration projects being led by a strategy or business need, currently most are driven by opportunity.

The service also has an inconsistent approach to ensuring that business continuity arrangements are in place and regularly tested. Its overarching business continuity plan has passed its review date and the service could not demonstrate that it was testing departmental plans regularly.

Further savings are required to be made over future years. When we inspected the service, it did not have any agreed plans in place for how these savings will be realised. In considering the need for future efficiencies, the service needs to balance its resources across the areas of response, prevention and protection if it is to continue to meet the priorities set out in its IRMP. We recognise this will be a challenge.

Questions for Efficiency

1

How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure resources allocated to prevention, protection, response and support activities are linked to risks and priorities set out in its integrated risk management plan.
  • The service needs to improve how it monitors the productivity of staff. It needs to ensure there is appropriate monitoring and management of working time.
  • The service should ensure it has good continuity arrangements in place that take account of all foreseeable threats and risks. It needs to review and test plans regularly.

We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.

How plans support objectives

The service is part of Northumberland County Council (NCC). In February 2016, the council agreed its medium-term financial plan for 2016 to 2020 and a two-year budget for 2016 to 2018. The council had to reduce its budget by £6m in 2017/18. It also needs to make further savings of £36m from 2018 to 2022. The service is therefore required to contribute to this. The service has a good track record of achieving savings and has already made significant savings of £4.5 million, which it achieved through reductions in staff, fleet and a station closure.

In the year to 31 March 2018, the cost of one firefighter per head of the population was £26.67. This compares with the England rate of £22.38 over the same period. However, many factors influence this cost: for example, the ratio of wholetime to retained staff, which is in part influenced by the rurality of the service. The service’s spending on operational firefighting activity in 2017/18 was £16m. This is the third lowest in England after the Isles of Scilly and Isle of Wight fire and rescue services.

Annual budgets are delegated to departmental managers and expenditure is monitored every month by the service’s management team and a council accountant. We found the systems of financial management and financial governance within the service to be robust.

The service has been asked to make further budget reductions of £1.1m over the next three years. It has yet to develop plans to ensure it can provide a resilient fire and rescue service that meets the level of service set out in the IRMP.

Productivity and ways of working

The service’s need to reduce staff to meet budget cuts has influenced its workforce model in recent years. As at 31 March 2010, the service had 176 full-time equivalent (FTE) wholetime firefighters; at the same point in 2018, the service had 137. This is a reduction of 22 percent. In March 2016, the service changed its response model to meet budget reductions. This included the closure of a fire station and the loss of an on-call fire engine.

Almost half the service’s firefighters are on call. Like many other services, Northumberland FRS has a number of on-call vacancies, which means that some of its on-call engines are not always available to respond to incidents. Each day, the duty manager will move operational resources around the county to ensure the best level of fire cover. The scale and frequency of these changes can affect the pre-planned activities of wholetime crews. We found examples of planned training not being carried out, and community safety activities and building risk inspections having to be cancelled or rearranged.

The service has reduced the number of staff in management roles. There are just eight managers from group manager level up to chief officer. We found that management capacity at all levels of the organisation is stretched.

Specialist departments have seen large reductions in staffing numbers. For example, the community safety team has reduced staff from 37 in 2008 to 9 in 2018, fire protection inspectors from 10 in 2010 to 5 in 2018 and training staff from 13.5 in 2010 to 8.5 in 2018. Staff repeatedly told us that staff numbers in specialist departments had now been reduced too far.

We also found that the service doesn’t manage staff working time effectively. We identified that staff are working extra hours to complete workloads and accumulating a significant number of additional hours of leave. Many staff told us that, even when they work additional hours, they still can’t manage their workloads. In prevention and protection departments, the lack of capacity was stated as the reason targets weren’t being met.

Collaboration

The service has a clear governance structure for overseeing how it discharges its legislative duty to collaborate with other emergency services. It has established good working relationships with the other local emergency services. 

Examples of collaboration we saw included outsourcing, partnership working and shared services. We found that the decisions to take part in collaborative activities seem to be based on opportunities that occur (for example, where the service is invited to work with another partner), as opposed to being led by a financial or business case. But we found that these arrangements were beneficial in supporting closer working with partner agencies.

Continuity arrangements

We found a lack of accountability for business continuity arrangements among senior management and a lack of understanding of business continuity at departmental level.

The service doesn’t have a system in place for regularly testing its continuity plans. The main organisational continuity plan has passed its review date. It was also unclear when departmental or functional plans were last tested.

Continuity testing for the service’s fire control function, a potentially high-risk area of service, wasn’t routine. No programme of continuity exercising was in place, even after a joint user of the control system had experienced continuity problems. The service should ensure its business continuity arrangements are in place, understood and regularly tested.

2

How well is the FRS securing an affordable way of managing the risk of fire and other risks now and in the future?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service needs to agree ways of working within its reducing budget that enables it to meet future prevention, protection and response requirements.

We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.

Improving value for money

Northumberland County Council needs to make savings of £36m between 2019 and 2022. As part of the council’s plan, the service needs to contribute to this and make £1.1m of further savings from its budget over the next three years.

Staff costs constitute three-quarters of the service’s revenue budget. Consequently, if the service wants to maintain its current establishment figures, the £1.1m in savings must come from its remaining budget of around £3.5m.

At the time of our inspection, the service didn’t have agreed plans in place to meet the totality of its future savings requirements. It has identified some potential areas of savings, such as reducing overtime, which should meet the savings needed for years one and two.

The greater part of the savings required, £0.9m, is scheduled for 2021/22. This is a significant percentage of the service’s controllable budget and will mean considerable changes are needed to the service’s current operating model. The service is currently looking at ways to make these savings, including commissioning feasibility studies and a review of collaborative opportunities with other fire and rescue services.

The service’s future efficiency plans should make sure it is able to meet the objectives within its IRMP. This includes areas such as prevention and protection. We recognise this is going to be difficult because it is already a lean service.

The council has provisionally allocated the service capital expenditure of £3.9m over the next three years. This will go towards replacing fire engines with new, more affordable and efficient ones.

Innovation

The service seeks opportunities to improve business practices and make future savings. For example, the service has recently built an in-house breathing apparatus training facility. This has resulted in annual savings of around £50,000. Half of this saving is being reinvested to further develop the training facilities. This facility also creates logistical efficiencies in terms of travel time, accessibility and ease of use.

We found a good example of how the service delivers savings through the outsourcing of fleet servicing and personal protective clothing for firefighters.

We saw that the service is using its investment in the on-call system to improve recruitment and retention. For example, the service has recently increased the disturbance allowance to on-call staff to £10 per hour, which is above the national rate. As this is a new scheme, it hasn’t yet been possible to evaluate any benefits arising from this.

Future investment and working with others

We found that the service is generating some external income. For example, the service is increasingly exploring opportunities to share its estate. We saw examples of this at several fire stations, with partners co-located.

The fire service has previously provided commercial training but, at the time of our inspection, this had stopped. This was to allow for the council to explore whether to bring all such activities under a single council-owned trading entity.