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Royal Berkshire 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
Good

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. Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency is good.

Royal Berkshire FRS makes good use of its resources. The service has a medium-term financial plan in place for the period to 2021, and its annual budget for 2018/19 is £33.5m. The plan is based on its CPIRMP and meets financial requirements.

The service told us it is on track to make a further £2.4m of savings by the end of 2019/20. It has introduced a new hub model to make savings and encourage better collaboration between different departments. It intends to evaluate this new model in 2019.

A strategic performance board monitors how well the service is meeting its performance targets. Its business continuity arrangements are robust.

The availability of on-call firefighters increases at night. However, the service’s current wholetime shift pattern provides the same number of wholetime firefighters 24 hours a day. This means there are more firefighters available at night than there are during the day. Royal Berkshire FRS should make sure its current shift patterns provide the most efficient and productive service to the public. 

The service works well with other organisations to get better value for money. It is a member of the Thames Valley Collaboration Steering Group, which includes representatives from the police, fire and ambulance service across Thames Valley. It jointly funds a procurement officer with Thames Valley Police. It has also procured services with the other emergency services in Thames Valley and the wider fire sector. Better use of technology would further improve its productivity and efficiency.

Questions for Efficiency

1

How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?

Good

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

Royal Berkshire FRS has a set of strategic objectives. These are based on the vision set out in its CPIRMP and focus on improving its prevention, protection and response work. The strategic objectives form the basis of several projects managed by a programme office. The office makes sure there is a business case for any new work and monitors budgets and reporting processes.

The service’s CPIRMP also includes performance targets, which are passed on to local staff in hubs and stations. Each station has its own plan, which is produced in a brief and accessible format. But we found that not all staff know about it.

The service has a medium-term financial plan in place for the period to 2021, and its annual budget for 2018/19 is £33.5m. The plan is based on its CPIRMP and meets financial requirements. In the four years following the start of the government’s austerity measures in 2010/11, the service told us that it saved £5m from its operating costs. As part of its current efficiency plan, the service told us it is on track to make a further £2.4m of savings by the end of 2019/20. £1.1m of these savings have been achieved through restructuring, including the introduction of the hub model, which saved on management costs. The service has identified the remaining £1.3m of these savings as part of its CPIRMP planning cycle. It plans to close some fire stations, remove a support unit for on-call firefighters by embedding support within the hub model, and introduce more efficient ways of responding to incidents.

Productivity and ways of working

Royal Berkshire FRS designed its new hub model to make savings and encourage better collaboration between different departments. We saw some evidence of better integration and communication between prevention, protection and response teams. However, some staff told us they didn’t fully understand the new approach. The service intends to evaluate this new model in 2019. 

A strategic performance board monitors how well the service is meeting its targets.

It looks at four main areas:

  • service provision – how well it is meeting its prevention, protection and response targets;
  • corporate health – how well it is managing its staff and its finances;
  • priority programmes – how effectively the various improvement programmes and projects are meeting its strategic commitments; and
  • corporate risk – an assessment of corporate risks that may affect the service.

Royal Berkshire FRS has made some positive improvements as a result of this monitoring. For example, by examining and improving the time it takes to attend emergencies, it has reduced its average total response time to primary fires from ten minutes in the year ending 31 March 2016 to 8 minutes 52 seconds in the year to 31 March 2018.

The strategic performance board also monitors how well the service is delivering its prevention and protection activities. In this area, some staff told us the focus on output targets is having a negative effect. For example, safe and well visits may be rushed to meet the monthly quota. This focus on targets without quality control may be having an adverse effect on the quality of the prevention and protection activities being provided to the public.

As at 31 March 2018, the service had 11 wholetime fire stations, six on-call fire stations and one mixed fire station. Data provided by the service indicates that it has increased the number of wholetime fire engines from 13 to 14 since 2011, while reducing the number of station-based staff from 364 to 328. The service has done this by introducing a different crewing model for specialist vehicles, and crewing fire engines with four firefighters instead of five.

The availability of on-call firefighters increases at night. However, the service’s current wholetime shift pattern provides the same number of wholetime firefighters 24 hours a day. This means there are more firefighters available at night than there are during the day. Royal Berkshire FRS should make sure its current shift patterns provide the most efficient and productive service to the public.

In May 2019, the service is introducing a new approach to managing its fire stations, which it believes will be more efficient. By setting up remotely managed stations and changing its approach to incident command, it expects to save £550,000 a year. The approach was co-designed with the Fire Brigades Union, and staff have been fully consulted. The service believes that the benefits of the new approach will be:

  • a greater number of level two incident commanders;
  • increased office-hour availability of managers;
  • new progression routes for station-based staff; and
  • new opportunities for management professionals both within the service and outside it.

We look forward to the evaluation of this new approach. 

Collaboration

Royal Berkshire FRS proactively meets its statutory duty to consider emergency service collaboration. It is a member of the Thames Valley Collaboration Steering Group, which includes representatives from the police, fire and ambulance service across Thames Valley. The group’s objective is to make savings and increase efficiency across local public sector bodies. The partnership’s programme manager co-ordinates operational alignment (harmonising operational procedures with other fire services), procurement, protection, estates, risk modelling, recruitment, apprenticeships and rota alignment.

The service makes discerning choices about collaborative projects. It has identified several worthwhile joint ventures and has rejected some proposals if the benefits weren’t clear. For example, it decided the costs of a joint facility with Thames Valley Police were too high.

As a result of its collaborations, Royal Berkshire FRS has been able to maintain standards while also making savings. According to the service, successful projects include:

  • the Thames Valley Fire Control Service, which brings together Royal Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire FRSs. This has secured £1m of annual saving for the three fire services;
  • joint procurement of 47 fire engines and equipment with Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire FRSs, which is expected to save £720,000 collectively over four years;
  • the service’s site at Hungerford, which brings the fire service together with Thames Valley Police and South Central Ambulance Service. This has delivered a better service to the community and a 40 percent saving on premises costs; and
  • joint procurement with Oxfordshire and Staffordshire FRSs of a new aerial ladder platform, saving approximately 7 percent of the total cost.

Continuity arrangements

The service has robust and up-to-date business continuity arrangements. This includes critical areas such as a cyber attack or loss of fire control. We saw evidence of the success of its approach when it was subject to a ‘ransomware’ attack in 2017.

We also saw that the service routinely tests its business continuity plans. Operation Fall Back was a relocation of Thames Valley Fire Control Service from its Theale headquarters to a back-up facility in Kidlington, Oxfordshire. The LRF also tests continuity plans based on scenarios including avian flu, industrial action and terrorist attacks.

2

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

Good

Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service is good at making itself affordable now and in the future. But we found the following area in which it needs to improve:

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure it makes the best use of available technology to improve operational effectiveness and efficiency.

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

In the year to 31 March 2018, Royal Berkshire FRS’s firefighter cost per head of population was £19.84. This compares to the England rate of £22.38 over the same time period. However, many factors influence this cost – for example, the ratio of wholetime to on-call staff.

Royal Berkshire FRS has a good track record of making savings. Its financial planning extends to 2028/29 and includes projections based on a wide range of scenarios. These include the effect of future pay awards, the additional expenditure if the fire authority doesn’t sanction the closure of Wargrave fire station, and the uncertainty surrounding the cost of public sector pensions.

The service’s capital programme sets out £75m of proposed expenditure over the next ten years, in line with the service’s vision for the future. This includes disposing of obsolete building stock to fund the new fire station at Theale, redeveloping the station at Crowthorne, replacing the fleet and updating the service’s technology.

Royal Berkshire FRS works with other organisations to get better value for money. It jointly funds a procurement officer with Thames Valley Police, and has procured services with the other emergency services in Thames Valley and the wider fire sector. According to the service, over 90 percent of its non-salary spend is subject to competition through tendering, and over a quarter of the resultant contracts are jointly procured with other organisations.

The service regularly uses business improvement processes to work out how it could do things better. It could benefit from using benchmarking – that is, comparing its processes to those of similar organisations. This might also help to increase its productivity and efficiency.

Innovation

Better use of technology would improve the service’s productivity and efficiency. Many prevention and protection activities are still dependent on paper records, and many station-based staff expressed dissatisfaction about its information communication technology (ICT) systems.

Through its current ICT strategy, the service has made recent improvements, including upgrading Microsoft Office, Windows 10 and its mobile data terminals. At the time of our inspection, it was due to publish its 2019–2024 ICT strategy, and it has plans to fund an ICT improvement programme with £7.5m over a ten-year period. The new strategy of ‘simplification, collaboration and virtualisation’ should mean the service is less reliant on physical servers and workstations and will allow new, more efficient ways of working.

Future investment and working with others

The service’s reserves are due to reduce from £14m at 31 March 2018 to approximately £4.6m at 31 March 2021. This is mainly through supporting the capital programme. There are £0.9m of reserves in the transition fund, which will support further restructuring, and £1m remains as a development fund for future ‘spend to save’ projects. The service assigns £2.3m – 7 percent of its revenue budget – to general reserves. This is to offset the effect of uneven cash flow and unexpected events such as industrial action.

The service continues to make savings through collaborating with other organisations. It plans to develop this through the Thames Valley Collaboration Steering Group and working with other FRSs.

Royal Berkshire FRS is a founder member of the Fire and Rescue Services Indemnity Company. This brings nine fire and rescue services together to indemnify liability against certain risks. The nine members also work together to reduce risk and share best practice. Allocations for indemnities are made by each service. Royal Berkshire FRS has estimated this approach is saving 1.4 percent in premiums. Due to a lower level of claims than expected, there are plans to return a proportion of the accumulated surpluses to members.

The service generates additional annual income of £265,000 by renting out office space in its properties and allowing telecoms masts to be sited on several of its
fire stations.