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. Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency is good.
Suffolk FRS is good at making best use of its resources. Its financial planning is linked to its IRMP. But it needs to improve how it allocates resources.
Suffolk County Council reviews and challenges the service’s plans regularly. Public scrutiny and challenge come from elected members within the council cabinet.
The service uses various working patterns effectively. This means that it can match resource to risk effectively. It manages performance well at a strategic level. But it needs to improve performance management at other levels.
The service collaborates within and outside the fire sector. Its collaborations save costs and improve capacity and resilience. They also strengthen links between the service and the organisations that it works with.
The service’s business continuity arrangements are effective.
Suffolk FRS is also good at making its service affordable now and in the future. The service knows about the current financial climate. It understands short-term financial risks and mitigates their effects. But it needs to better understand its medium-term financial challenges.
The service invests in technology that will improve the service it gives to the public. However, it needs to improve its internal computer systems to better support staff to do their jobs.
The council holds the service’s reserves. The reserves strategy is sound. It allows the service to access additional funding when needed.
The service has successfully secured external funding from government grants and sponsorship. It uses this funding to support its spending on buildings and prevention activity.
How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?
Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service is good at making best use of resources. But we found the following areas in which it needs to improve:
Areas for improvement
- The service needs to show a clear rationale for the resources allocated between prevention, protection and response activities. This should be linked to risks and priorities set out in its new integrated risk management plan.
- The service should make sure its arrangements for managing performance ensure its workforce use their time in line with the priorities in its integrated risk management plan.
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 has a medium-term financial plan that is driven by its IRMP.
The service has an incremental approach to budgeting: it bases its annual budget on the previous year’s, with minor increases or decreases that are usually based on changes to UK inflation. Because of this approach, the service hasn’t shown a clear rationale for its allocation of resources to prevention, protection and response within its annual budget setting. Therefore, the service isn’t showing how it is focusing on risk and demand in its financial planning. However, there is no evidence that this approach is adversely affecting the service that Suffolk FRS gives to the public, or its ability to meet its IRMP priorities.
Suffolk County Council monitors and reviews the service’s financial planning process. The service’s finances and performance are the subject of peer challenge from council officers. Elected members of the county council’s cabinet also offer robust public scrutiny and challenge of the service’s finances and performance.
The service has an annual budget of £21.5 million. As at 31 March 2018, the service had 43 operational fire engines, located at 35 stations across the county. It has a higher concentration of resources in the eastern coastal area, where it can’t rely on the support of neighbouring services. This should ensure that it has enough resources where they are needed.
Productivity and ways of working
The service makes good use of a variety of working patterns to match resources to risk. It has a mix of wholetime, day-crewed and on-call firefighters. As at 31 March 2018, the service had six mixed fire stations, and 29 on-call fire stations.
The service’s on-call crewing reserve is an efficient method for improving on-call availability. By supplementing on-call crewing reserve with surplus wholetime staff, the service is making best use of its operational resources. The service makes sure that on-call crewing reserve staff spend their time productively while they are at the station. It allocates them routine equipment testing, and prevention activities such as safe and well visits, in addition to their own personal development matters. The service is also training these staff in fire safety, so that they can start to carry out compliance checks.
In the year to 31 March 2018, the firefighter cost per head of population was £17.73. This compares to the England rate of £22.38.
As previously mentioned, at the time of our inspection the service had 20 active volunteers. They offer an efficient means of supporting the service’s prevention activity.
As at 31 March 2018, the service had 57 full-time equivalent (FTE) support staff. This is a reduction of 27.8 percent when compared to 31 March 2011. As part of the county council, the service draws on support from other departments such as IT, human resources and communications. This is an efficient way for the service to supplement its back-office functions.
The service has an effective project and programme management structure. The structure supports performance management at a strategic level. However, performance management at other levels within the organisation is inconsistent. Staff told us that they are subject to very limited performance targets. For example, they weren’t aware of any targets for the completion of safe and well visits. There also wasn’t enough management data and information (and nor was the data and information accurate). The service has acknowledged the data issue. It has plans in place to improve its data collection, and to make data more accessible and useable by managers and staff. We have already seen the benefits of this action, with the service able to give more data in response to our requests. The service should make sure that it continues to make progress in this area to improve overall performance management.
The service is exploiting a wide range of opportunities to collaborate within and beyond the fire sector. The most notable of these is the combined fire control with Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service. This is resulting in ongoing efficiencies of £400,000 per year for each service.
The service shares 16 of its 35 stations with other blue-light partners. All parties have benefited financially from this arrangement. The service receives an income of approximately £200,000 annually to cover additional costs. The service told us that the projected combined savings of this estate sharing was originally £8m over 20 years. These savings were from the disposal of surplus buildings, as well as reduced maintenance, rates and utilities costs. As the collaboration has developed, the projected savings are now £12m over 20 years. Estate sharing has also led to further collaborations, such as multi-partner drones and a joint cadet scheme. Partners told us how beneficial this collaboration has been to all involved.
As part of Suffolk County Council, the service shares a range of back-office functions. And its headquarters are located in the county council’s building.
Other collaborations include a special operations team collaboration with Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service, and joint incident command training and assessment with Essex Fire and Rescue Service. These collaborations have improved the service that Suffolk FRS gives to the public.
The service has an effective collaboration governance structure. A sponsors’ board oversees this. All collaborations are subject to regular monitoring and evaluation, to make sure that the service is realising anticipated benefits and positive outcomes. During our inspection, there were examples of the service ending collaborations because they hadn’t achieved what had been hoped.
The service has robust business continuity arrangements. And it is supported by the county council’s community risk management team. The service’s plans include actions for when extraordinary events (such as industrial action or mass sickness)impact its ability to give an effective service to the public. It also has plans for incidents such as the temporary closure of the Orwell Bridge.
We saw evidence of regular testing of the plans in relation to information and communications technology (ICT), and the combined fire control. Staff train for, and exercise, the service’s fall-back arrangements on a regular basis. This includes phased and immediate evacuation to a secondary fire control facility. Fire control staff who are involved in the testing record lessons learned from all activations. There was evidence of the service acting on recommendations for improvement. Staff put back-up arrangements in place due to loss of radios during inspection.
How well is the FRS securing an affordable way of managing the risk of fire and other risks now and in the future?
Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service is good at making its services affordable now and in the future. But we found the following areas in which it needs to improve:
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure it has sufficiently robust plans in place which fully consider the medium-term financial challenges beyond 2020 so it can prepare to secure the right level of savings.
- The service needs to ensure it makes the best use of technology to improve its efficiency and effectiveness.
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
The service has a good understanding of the financial climate in which it currently operates. It understands the financial risks that it is facing in the short term. It is mitigating their effects with the county council’s support. For example, the county council is supporting the service to cover the additional costs of fire service pension employers’ contributions.
The service has started to consider the implication of funding changes beyond 2020. However, it hasn’t yet carried out any detailed planning. The service should make sure that it has plans in place that are robust enough. The plans should fully consider the medium-term financial challenges beyond 2020, so that the service can aim for a balanced budget.
The service has consistently made revenue savings since 2010. Its annual budget has reduced by £2.4m in the past five years. The service told us that its latest savings are £1.3m through to 2020/21. It is forecasting a balanced budget for 2019/20. The service has also made savings to its capital spending. It did this by reducing its fleet, extending the life of its vehicles and investing in smaller vehicles.
The service secures efficiencies by jointly negotiating contracts with other county council departments that are linked to Suffolk County Council’s commercial transformation programme. The service is part of the national personal protective equipment procurement project, and it uses national frameworks for vehicle and uniform procurement.
The service has made some use of technology to improve efficiency and effectiveness. For example, it has developed and launched a new staff smartphone app to improve communication. Its drone collaboration also supports both firefighter safety and an enhanced response to incidents for the public.
During our inspection, many staff told us about their IT-related frustrations. The service needs to update many of its systems, to make them more efficient and effective. For example, the premises management system doesn’t support RBIP. And data capture systems don’t give enough accurate management data and information. Staff also told us about incompatibilities and duplications between the internal FireIT system and the county council’s systems.
The service knows about these issues. In 2017, it carried out an IT review and prioritised updating its training record system. The update has now been done and is proving to be effective. The premises management system has had a rewrite and will be relaunched later in 2019, after it has been tested.
The service has secured £100,000 additional funding from the county council to continue to improve its IT systems, infrastructure and support. The service should make sure that it progresses its plans so that it makes better use of technology to improve efficiency and effectiveness.
Future investment and working with others
The service has a sound reserves strategy. In the year to March 2018, the service had around £3.9m in earmarked reserves and around £1.5m in general reserves. However, following a restructure to capital and reserve funding in 2019/20, the council now holds reserves as part of a wider Suffolk County Council programme. The council has earmarked some of these reserves for Suffolk FRS. The service can access additional reserves through a bidding process. During our inspection, the service made successful bids for reserves (for example, securing the extra funding for IT mentioned above).
As the result of a successful bid, the service received a £5.4m fire transformation fund government grant. The service is using this grant for its shared estates capital programme. The service has a long-standing relationship with Rotary clubs. Rotary matches funding for smoke alarm purchases, and sponsors livery on the service’s vehicles. The service has also secured funding from three secondary schools for school liaison posts within those schools. It is working to secure the funding of additional posts within other schools.
The service plans to continue (and expand) its estate sharing collaborations. It plans to have four further blue-light stations by 2020. It is a key partner in the One Public Estate programme. And it is looking to further share and consolidate the estate across the wider public sector in Suffolk.