Skip to content

West Sussex 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. West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency requires improvement.

The service has a good understanding of its financial position and its financial plans are based on sound assumptions. It also has a track record of achieving savings, saving several million pounds since 2011/12 by reducing its workforce and the number of fire engines it runs, and through closer integration with the local county council.

However, the service needs to do more to make the best use of its resources. In particular, it needs to improve how it allocates its resources to align more closely with the priorities outlined in its IRMP. It should also do more to monitor and review the benefits and outcomes of collaboration with other agencies and services.

While we recognise the savings the service has made, it has failed to invest these savings into ways to make itself more effective and efficient. It still relies on a computer system that hinders its protection and prevention work, and still does too much work on paper. It could also make better use of risk information to drive its activities. The service has failed to take advantage of the county council’s transformation reserve to bring about the changes it needs.

Questions for Efficiency

1

How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service needs to ensure it allocates its resources appropriately and prioritises activities that address the risks identified in its IRMP.
  • The service should have effective measures to ensure staff are productive and using their time efficiently to deliver the priorities in the IRMP.
  • The service should ensure there is effective monitoring, review and evaluation of the benefits and outcomes of any collaboration.

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 clear about the financial challenges it faces. They include realigning resource to risk, improving the number of on-call firefighters and managing a changing workforce. The service has set up four strategic boards to monitor progress on these and other issues and deliver its objectives.

The service’s plans are built on sound financial assumptions and largely reflect the priorities contained in its IRMP. It has business development plans for each area, and its financial and workforce plans are aligned. It has allocated resources to prevention, protection and response, and a staff control group provides strategic oversight. But we found the service can’t always match resources appropriately to risk. Examples include the difficulties it has experienced in maintaining the number of on-call firefighters and providing the number of fire engines it has committed to in its IRMP.

The service told us it made £7m in savings between 2011/12 and 2016/17. It has done this by reducing its workforce and the number of fire engines. It has also reduced administration and support costs through its integration with the county council. But we found that the service hasn’t invested these savings in technology that would allow it to use its resources more efficiently. An example of this is the computer system it uses to manage prevention and protection work. Staff explained the various problems they had encountered with this system, including inaccurate reporting and loss of data. This has led to additional systems being introduced by both teams as they try to manage the inefficiencies the IT system has created.

We found the service has also been cutting costs by collaborating with other fire services to procure operational equipment. But we came across little evidence of regular evaluation or reviews of collaborative arrangements.

Productivity and ways of working

As at 31 March 2018, the service had 606 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff. Over the same time period, 61.7 percent of its FTE firefighters were wholetime. The service uses a range of working models to support the delivery of its services. This includes uniformed and non-uniformed staff working flexible shift patterns. In the year to 31 March 2018, the firefighter cost per head of population was £21.98. 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 retained staff, which is in part influenced by the rurality of the service.

We found that the service doesn’t co-ordinate the activity of its staff well enough to maximise productivity. It doesn’t have strategies in place that would allow it to take a clear, collaborative approach to delivering prevention, protection and response activities. Performance management has also been limited, which has done little to assure the service that staff are prioritising their activity. As a result, it can’t deliver all the objectives set out within its IRMP.

The service has recently introduced business development plans for all stations, and work activity is now monitored monthly. But we found that these plans didn’t drive localised risk-delivery work and are not used to prioritise activity. Station profiles clearly communicate the risks in station areas. But we found the profiles were rarely used to understand community needs and drive activity at a station level. The service should make sure it uses its risk information to drive activity and monitor this through a robust performance management framework.

The service has introduced a customer centred value for money delivery board. The board’s aim is to support better links between the community and service on delivery. But the board is still in the early stages. The service surveys the public after fire incidents and prevention activities. While this is welcome, we saw few examples of how these surveys have improved ways of working or the delivery of services.

Collaboration

The service’s integration with West Sussex County Council has created benefits for both organisations. For example, the deputy chief fire officer is also the head of Trading Standards, and the service and Trading Standards work together to improve outcomes for West Sussex communities. This includes carrying out joint enforcement work. The service has also drawn on the capacity and expertise of the council’s IT department. This work is still at an early stage, so the full benefits are yet to be realised.

The service is part of the 3Fs partnership with Surrey and East Sussex FRSs. The benefits of this work include joint recruitment and initial training courses for wholetime staff. But these benefits are limited. Because the service doesn’t regularly evaluate the benefits of its collaboration, it can’t always show exactly what activities it is benefitting from the most.

Continuity arrangements

The service uses West Sussex County Council’s resilience and emergencies team to support its resilience arrangements. This team works with the service to advise and test its business continuity plans. The IT service for West Sussex FRS is outsourced. These continuity arrangements are tested regularly. But we found that the IT provider doesn’t offer support out of hours for the service’s mobilising system. Instead, this is provided by the service’s in-house electronic services team. The service should make sure it maintains adequate resilience arrangements to mobilise fire engines at all times.

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 should do more to identify areas where innovation, including the use of technology, can help it improve productivity and develop capacity.

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 Sussex FRS’s budget for 2018/19 is £25.3m. This doesn’t include support services that the council provides, such as human resources, payroll and IT. The council doesn’t allocate these costs at a service level, so the full cost of these services is unclear. However, we saw examples of how the council reviews how it commissions services to make sure they provide value for money. The service told us it has a history of achieving budget reductions and has saved £7m since the financial year 2011/12. Long-term planning is more difficult, owing to a level of uncertainty about the service’s future funding as part of the county council. But we found the service’s financial assumptions about the near future are realistic and prudent.

West Sussex and East Sussex FRSs received £3.6m in transformational funding in 2013 to merge their control rooms. West Sussex FRS is withdrawing from this agreement in 2020 and looking for a new provider for its mobilising function. Until the new arrangements can be established, the cost to the county council will be £15,000 from October 2018, rising to £30,000 in April 2019. The service has told us the new mobilising control arrangements, which it intends to have in place by early 2020, will save money over the medium term. 

The service’s customer centred value for money delivery board oversees and is responsible for reducing costs – for example, through procurement. But it was acknowledged this is still at an early stage and the benefits are limited. An early example was its procurement of new thermal image cameras.

Innovation

The service’s approach to risk-based response standards is an example of where it has tried to work innovatively. But we came across few other examples of the service delivering or improving services to the public through innovative work. It uses SharePoint to manage and share information. But we found that its operational staff weren’t properly trained to use it. This limits the potential benefits. For many of its activities, including prevention and gathering risk information, the service still relies on completing paper forms. This limits effectiveness and efficiency. The service should do more to identify areas where innovation and the use of technology can make its work more productive.

Future investment and working with others

The service can access the county council’s transformation reserve. At the time of the inspection, £7m was available. But we didn’t come across many examples of the service using this fund to invest in areas that would increase its efficiency and capacity. For example, its prevention and protection computer system has seen a lack of investment, which is limiting the efficiency of the service’s delivery to the public. It has used the capacity and expertise in the county council’s IT department to upgrade its office-based systems. It hopes to introduce tablets for mobile work during 2019.

The service is part of the One Public Estate project. This has highlighted seven service sites suitable for future development. This service believes this arrangement should help to improve and future-proof its estate. The site at Horsham is an example where plans have been submitted to locate an improved multi-agency hub and training facility.

The service pays staff overtime to generate income by providing courses and other services through the county council. It offers courses in fire safety and fire extinguisher training to businesses. Any income from these goes to the fire service’s budget. The service told us these generate an income of around £200,000 a year. This doesn’t meet the current target for income generation, which has historically been set at £341,000.