How efficient is the fire and rescue service at keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks?
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. Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency is good.
The service has a good track record of achieving savings. It is on course to achieve modest savings this year. Oxfordshire County Council supports the service’s medium and long-term planning. Its committees also scrutinise the fire budgets. The service has robust financial systems.
The service has limited capacity to support the change programme. Its funding of response teams is stable, but it relies on overtime to keep fire engines crewed with five staff. This should be tested for value for money. It holds quarterly reviews to make sure resources are used effectively.
The service works with others within the Thames Valley partnership group and evaluates its joint work with emergency services. It has tested its business continuity plans but needs to improve its prevention and protection databases to avoid loss of data.
The service reviews its budgets annually. Staff help in making their work more efficient and eliminating waste. Finances are in good order and the service is proactive when jointly buying equipment. All operational equipment is tested and fit for use. But the service needs to invest more in technology and its buildings need updating. The collapse of the building services contractor Carillion has meant the service has not had a formal programme in place to update these buildings.
How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?
Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service is good at making best use of resources. But we found the following area in which it needs to improve:
Areas for improvement
- The service should implement a more robust way of recording prevention and protection information.
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
Oxfordshire County Council considers the service a high priority and it can plan resources to manage risk accordingly. The service’s financial plan is based on the county council’s medium-term financial plan, which is informed by the central government spending review. The council’s performance scrutiny committee challenges and scrutinises fire budgets.
Oxfordshire County Council supports the service’s work on medium and long-term planning. The chief fire officer sits at a high level within the county council leadership team, which reports directly to the chief executive on professional issues. Elected members of the council strongly support the service.
The service told us that the final budget for the fire and rescue service for 2015/16 was £25.8m. Efficiency savings helped reduce this to £22.9m for 2016/17. For 2018/19 the budget was set at £22.6m. The service saved over £1m in 2016/17 and a further £454,000 in 2017/18. The council expects modest savings from the service – £30,000 in 2018/19 and £90,000 in 2019/20 – through a combination of transforming crewing models and fire collaboration initiatives.
In the year to 31 March 2018, the firefighter cost per head of population was £21.79. This compares to 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. The rural area that the service covers partly influences this. The service has reinvested to achieve the aims of the CRMP. For example, it switched staff to form the crew of the roving fire engine to fill gaps in service availability, and made savings through the Thames Valley control room merger. The service has carried out a mapping exercise to examine and cost all current activity against its budget. That has allowed the chief fire officer to model future budgets in a better way.
The service has the right level of checks to manage its finances. Every year, it considers priorities, affordability and allocation of resources between protection, prevention and response for the following year’s budget-setting process.
Productivity and ways of working
As set out earlier in this report, the service recognises that it has problems of capacity in rolling out its risk-based inspection programme within its protection function. It has been successful in a capital bid of £350,000 to the county council to increase staffing to support the programme. The council is planning future investment in IT of around £10m across all its services. This will focus on providing a service to the public and using ICT to improve service provision. Its current capacity to support further major change programmes is limited. The service needs to consider how it will support this programme of change.
Current resourcing of response services is stable. The budget for pre-arranged overtime is monitored and the vacancy management plan is balanced against the overtime budget. We were informed that the service relies heavily on additional hours to try to keep wholetime fire engines crewed with five staff. Between 1 April 2018 and 31 December 2018, wholetime firefighters in Oxfordshire worked 8,147 hours of pre-arranged overtime. This has cost the service £147,526. While we saw the hours that staff worked were well managed, the service should make sure this gives the best value for money.
The service has effective measures to compare performance with targets for prevention, protection and response. Quarterly meetings monitor performance to make sure that resources are targeted effectively. The CRMP identifies that the service uses intelligence and data to improve understanding of its community. This allows it to target resources effectively.
We found evidence of positive partnership working through the service’s use of its specialist rescue unit. For example, when the unit is not needed for firefighting functions, it undertakes emergency tree removal for the county council where the tree is disrupting transport.
The service meets its statutory duty to consider emergency service collaboration. This work is part of the CRMP’s priorities and improves the provision of core functions.
The service monitors, reviews and evaluates the benefits and outcomes of all collaborative work. The service has a clear collaboration strategy which the Thames Valley programme board oversees. This reports to the service’s senior management board, which looks at collaboration between fire, police and ambulance services. The Thames Valley partnership has appointed a programme manager to work across six different areas. These include procuring fire engines, aligning protection policies and skills, and joint working on NOG.
One example of joint working is evaluating gaining entry for the ambulance service. This improved response times for the ambulance service. It could start treating a patient an average of 9 minutes after the first call, which is 16 minutes quicker than previously when police were called.
The service has a wide range of business continuity plans. Nearly all of these are tested regularly. The business continuity framework identifies the main critical functions such as response capability, looking after staff, weather alerts and cyber-attacks. Each department within the service has a relevant and bespoke plan.
The prevention and protection databases have dedicated administrators. They currently use spreadsheets to record inspections. The service has recognised it needs to improve these systems, which present a risk due to loss or corruption of data.
Thames Valley Fire Control Service has comprehensive business continuity arrangements. But at the time of inspection, staff had limited exposure to testing the plans in full to evacuate to the secondary control room in Oxfordshire FRS. Since then, we have seen further evidence of testing during our Royal Berkshire FRS inspection.
How well is the FRS securing an affordable way of managing the risk of fire and other risks now and in the future?
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
Oxfordshire FRS has financial controls to reduce the risk of inappropriate use of public money.
We found evidence that staff were engaged in increasing efficiencies and eliminating waste. Each department head reviews their own budget for the next year and reports into the senior management team budget meeting. The medium-term financial plan focus is on longer-term, year-on-year savings rather than in-year savings.
The service knows the main risks it faces (grant funding changes, inflation, unforeseen costs) and is working to mitigate them. Finances are in good order and plans support its ambitions. It bases its plans on reasonable assumptions on pay, inflation, pressures and funding changes. These are subject to informed challenges. It has external scrutiny to advise on the use of reserves, and judges the arrangements to achieve economy, efficiency and effectiveness as good.
The service actively seeks joint procurement opportunities with partner organisations, including other fire and rescue services, in order to realise price reductions through bulk purchasing and more joined-up working. The service is actively seeking to align procurement plans with the CRMP. It is working to align contracts to get to the stage where they all have the same timetable for renewal.
The scale of the overall council resources, compared with the funds required by Oxfordshire FRS, gives a stable financial background to safeguard against future risks. Although the service cannot predict beyond the comprehensive spending review, both Oxfordshire County Council and Oxfordshire FRS have performed consistently well in operating within the budget.
The service’s fleet management programme provides assurance that all operational equipment is appropriate, tested and fit for purpose. It is based on a 25-year planning term. The county council has approved a capital programme that is prudently funded from the council’s corporate resources budget with a combination of grant, revenue contributions and borrowing.
The county council currently provides an acceptable level of technology support. However, the council has recognised the need for future investment in technology. The service is included in the planning as part of the council’s transformation programme.
The current condition of the service’s buildings varies. Most were built between the 1950s and 1970s and need updating. Funding constraints and the recent problems due to the collapse of private sector estates partner Carillion has meant the service has not had a formal programme in place to update these properties.
Future investment and working with others
Oxfordshire FRS does not hold a separate general reserve from the one held by the county council. Data from the service shows there are earmarked reserves relating to fire control (£239,000 in 2017/18), emergency planning (£37,000 in 2017/18) and community safety (£156,000 in 2017/18). The last of these is expected to remain stable until 2021/22. The fire control and emergency planning reserves are planned to be exhausted by 2019/20.
As set out above in this report, the Thames Valley partnership has a structured programme of work. Buying large numbers of fire engines saves money. It also means that engines across county borders have standard equipment and stowage, which supports effective working with neighbouring services. Along with the other projects, this shows clear direction in collaborative work across Thames Valley.
The service may expand its co-responding initiative from the current three co-responding models that have been set through collaboration with South Central Ambulance Service, but this is dependent on national pay negotiations.
The service carries out fire safety training for other county council departments on a recharge basis, as well as offering training externally on its website with any additional capacity it has.