Skip to content

West Midlands 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. West Midlands Fire Service’s overall efficiency is good.

West Midlands Fire Service is good at financial planning. It has robust financial plans in place, and good processes for their scrutiny. Since 2011, it has made savings of £28m. It has a flexible resourcing model to cover prevention, protection and response work. It can show that it has made changes to resources to reflect the changing role of firefighters.

The service collaborates well with both blue light partners and other agencies, such as the local authority emergency planning team, to improve public safety. It shares its fire control function with Staffordshire FRS and is looking to expand this function with Warwickshire FRS.

The service manages its finances successfully. Its planning cycles are based on a three-year rolling programme to take account of uncertainties with future funding streams.

The service is continually striving to improve. It has successfully implemented many IT improvements, such as a project management tool and dynamic cover tool. It has good continuity plans in place, including a clear business continuity plan for IT failure.

The service has an appropriate level of financial reserves. It works with other organisations to save money and uses specialist staff to generate additional income, among other initiatives.

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

West Midlands Fire Service has clear and robust financial plans in place to provide an emergency service, as required by the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004. The plans are built on sound planning assumptions, which are subject to informed challenge and meet financial requirements. The service achieved efficiency savings of £28m between 2011 and 2017, following a reduction in service funding.

In the year to 31 March 2018, the firefighter cost per head of the population was £22.16. This compares to the England average of £22.38 over the same timeframe. The service is aware that proposed changes to terms and conditions for operational crews may pose a risk in the future. It is also considering the effect of a possible governance change to West Midlands Combined Authority.

The service has developed a comprehensive understanding of risk, which it has used to develop a resourcing model. As at 31 March 2018, it had 38 wholetime fire stations and 41 operational fire engines, which are supported by various smaller vehicles. This creates a flexible model covering prevention, protection and response activities.

Operational staff working in central teams are expected to carry out 22 shifts each year, supporting local crews. They can also volunteer for additional shifts. This gives the service operational resilience. It is recruiting 11 additional staff in its protection team to meet an identified increasing risk. It is also looking at how it can use its resources more efficiently and flexibly to conduct safe and well visits for the public.

The service has good processes in place for scrutiny of its financial plans. For example, Grant Thornton carries out its external audits. Internally, West Midlands Fire Authority members assess its financial reports and the financial strategy during their regular quarterly meetings.

Productivity and ways of working

West Midlands Fire Service has made several significant changes to improve the service it gives to the public. It has recognised that the role of a firefighter has changed, and that its traditional shift patterns and ways of working need to be flexible. We were impressed with some of the fundamental changes the service has achieved.

As previously mentioned, the service has introduced smaller vehicles. It has also changed shift patterns for some operational staff, to give the public a better service during periods of highest demand. It has introduced mobile electronic tablets for firefighters, so they can save time on paperwork and spend more time in their communities.

The service offers a range of flexible working patterns. Support staff predominantly use these between the hours of 6.00am and 10.00pm. It was good to see the service is using control room staff to operate the safe and well booking system during quieter times, and operational crews to carry out low-level business safety checks (safe and strong visits).

We did note that there was unease among some staff about how performance – such as the numbers of completed safe and well visits – was being managed within the service. If the senior team considers targets are necessary to drive certain activities, it needs to make sure that staff understand the reasons behind these decisions.

Collaboration

West Midlands Fire Service is meeting its legal duty to collaborate with its blue light partners. The service understands the link between vulnerability, health and risk. It works with a wide range of organisations to improve public safety. It makes sure any joint working or collaborative arrangements benefit the public and give value for money.

The service shares its fire control function with Staffordshire FRS, as well as supporting that service with fire investigations. West Midlands Fire Service is negotiating with another neighbouring service to collaborate on three areas of work: shared fire control, training and community safety.

The service works with others to share information on bulk purchasing and the testing of equipment. It uses established frameworks where possible, including central government frameworks and Birmingham City Council’s framework for major construction projects.

We found some good evidence of how the service reviews and evaluates the benefits of collaboration. For example, the joint fire control venture with Staffordshire FRS has resulted in a joint annual saving of £1.5m between both services. Response times for residents across both services have also improved.

Continuity arrangements

West Midlands Fire Service has good continuity plans which are regularly tested.

The business continuity plan for its control room contains a comprehensive list of evacuation strategies and actions linked to multiple scenarios. These include electronic and radio failures, and natural impacts such as bad weather. Each scenario details immediate actions and solutions. A testing and exercising schedule is in place.

There is also a clear business continuity plan for IT failure. Action cards are available which detail scenarios, with the resources needed for recovery and specific contingency arrangements. All data is backed up to a cloud-based server every 24 hours so that data can be restored, meaning the loss of only 24 hours’ worth of data
at most.

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

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

West Midlands Fire Service is good at its financial management of principal non-pay costs, including fleet and equipment. It has arrangements in place to scrutinise procurement quotes above £3,000, with more formal processes for spending over £30,000.

The service has a dashboard, 3PT, to oversee project management systems. This is fully understood by staff at all levels of the organisation. It allows principal managers to discuss and scrutinise ongoing projects to make sure they are providing value for money. 3PT is used to support cross departmental working across the service.

To improve value for money, the service is extending the life of its vehicles based on maintenance records, usage, resale value, etc. For example, each full-size fire engine has had its life expectancy increased from 10 to 13 years. The replacement cycles are then linked to budget forecasts.

The service bases its broader financial planning on a three-year rolling programme, in line with its plan. This means there is little financial planning beyond this. It is awaiting the government’s pending comprehensive spending review, which may affect future budgets significantly.

We noted that West Midlands Fire Service has looked at alternative funding to support its service delivery model. Unfortunately, these plans proved unpopular with the workforce and were withdrawn to avoid industrial action. This is a challenge for the service, as national pay and conditions negotiations are outside its influence.

Innovation

We found West Midlands Fire Service to be forward-thinking and innovative. It has a strong desire to continuously improve its service to the public and support its workforce.

The service is working through a plan to improve effectiveness and efficiency through the use of technology. It has already implemented the dynamic cover tool (fire engine availability) and 999eye systems. It has also introduced Skype. One benefit of this is a reduction in travel time and costs.

We found that staff are frustrated by some inefficient IT systems. They told us some information has to be entered more than once into different databases. We also found that a few fire stations were still using paper-based methods. The service has recently purchased licences for Office 365 software with the intention of modernising these systems.

The service has several initiatives ongoing, such as:

  • replacing MDTs and introducing GPSs;
  • upgrading its command and control function;
  • modernising its estates; and
  • investing more in project management.

It has also seconded a senior member of staff to the West Midlands Combined Authority to help plan for the effect of any potential changes in governance arrangements.

Future investment and working with others

West Midlands Fire Service has a good level of financial reserves. It uses these productively to support investments to enhance its service to the public. The total reserve fund is 57 percent of its net expenditure budget, as at 31 March 2018. The service intends to reduce its reserves over coming years by using a large proportion to fund capital projects. It is aiming to reduce its general reserves balance to £5m by 2021. This is around 5 percent of its net expenditure budget.

The service knows its current use of reserves isn’t sustainable to fund capital purchases in the long term, and that it will need to review its strategy beyond 2020/21.

It works with several other organisations to improve efficiency, for example:

  • sharing accommodation with West Midlands Police;
  • sharing emergency planning with Wolverhampton Council;
  • having regional procurement groups; and
  • collaborating with Warwickshire FRS in the future.

The service also uses specialist staff to generate additional income. It has a fully trained fire investigation team, with a commissioning agreement in place across the region. Staff are encouraged to pursue opportunities for low-level income generation. For example, developments made in the service’s IT department are sold to other FRSs.