How efficient is the fire and rescue service at keeping people safe and secure?
Avon Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency requires improvement.
Avon Fire and Rescue Service required improvement in its 2018/19 assessment
We are pleased with the improvements the service has made since our previous inspection in 2018. The service has a good understanding of the financial challenges it may face in the future and has planned for a variety of financial risks. Our previous inspection identified as an area for improvement that the medium-term financial plan was not linked to the service plan, and we are pleased that this has now been addressed. The service scrutinises its spending to make sure it gets value for money, and can make savings and efficiencies without negatively affecting its service to the public. The service has exploited external funding opportunities, including a Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme grant of nearly £1m, which we have noted as good practice.
It has made significant investment in protection staff, as well as other areas such as wellbeing. However, it still regularly has staffing shortages in its control room, and firefighters are often moved to other stations to cover shortfalls. The service has already recruited six new fire control officers and has firefighter recruitment courses planned for 2022. It is also trialling a new crewing model for some on-call stations to increase response availability.
The service needs to make sure that its IT systems are resilient, reliable, accurate and accessible. There has not been enough historic investment in IT infrastructure, and staff told us that this limits their ability to work flexibly. The service recognises this and is piloting new software and upgrading broadband in stations. The fire authority has approved a £1.5m investment in IT, and the service has funded a transformation programme to improve the way it operates through digital technology, which includes improvements to its IT infrastructure.
How well is the FRS making best use of its resources?
Avon Fire and Rescue Service requires improvement at making best use of its resources.
Avon Fire and Rescue Service required improvement in its 2018/19 assessment.
Fire and rescue services should manage their resources properly and appropriately, aligning those resources to meet the services’ risks and statutory responsibilities. They should make best possible use of their resources to achieve better outcomes for the public.
The service’s budget for 2021/22 is £44.56m. This is a 1.99 percent increase from the previous financial year.
Areas for improvement
- The service should have effective measures in place to assure itself that its wholetime workforce is productive and that their time is used as efficiently and effectively as possible to meet the priorities in the service plan.
- The service should assure itself that its IT systems are resilient, reliable, accurate and accessible.
We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.
The service has plans in place to support its objectives
The service’s financial plans reflect and are consistent with the risks and priorities identified in the service plan. This includes the way that it allocates staff to prevention, protection and response. Since our previous inspection, the service has invested significantly in its protection function. It has also invested in other areas of the service such as its wellbeing provisions.
The service plan clearly sets out the resources available within each function. However, firefighters told us they are regularly moved to other stations to cover shortfalls in crewing, and that overtime is frequently used. We were also told that there are regular staffing shortages in the control room, causing the watch to go below the minimum number of staff required. The service has planned firefighter recruitment courses for 2022. At the time of our inspection, six fire control operators were about to join the service, which will help with the staff shortfalls.
The service is trialling a dual response model for some on-call stations, particularly in the daytime when there are crewing shortages. This is where the crew of a fire engine is made up of firefighters from different on-call stations, who respond simultaneously. This has increased response availability.
The senior leadership board and Avon Fire Authority provide overview and scrutiny of the service’s budget performance to ensure the appropriate use of public money. The fire authority’s meetings are broadcast on the service’s social media channels to ensure transparency.
The current IT infrastructure is outdated– the service should continue to prioritise this area
As referred to in the last section, there has been a lack of investment in the service’s IT infrastructure. During our inspection, staff consistently told us that the capacity constraints of the IT infrastructure has limited their ability to work flexibly. During the initial stages of the pandemic, the service introduced time slots. This enabled staff to access the IT remotely at specific times of the day. However, staff told us that they sometimes had to work in the evenings or weekends to access the system. The poor IT infrastructure has affected the ability of staff to work effectively and productively.
Staff also told us that the ‘tough pads’ used for home fire safety visits (HFSVs) and risk information visits are outdated. We were told they often crash and don’t always synchronise to the main system.
The service recognises that its IT infrastructure needs improving. In October 2020, the fire authority approved an initial £1.5m investment in its IT, alongside its ongoing investment. At the time of our inspection, a pilot was taking place whereby some staff are trialling Microsoft 365 and Microsoft Teams. Staff we spoke to at one station welcomed the recent upgrade, which gave them faster broadband. Senior leaders are now more focused on IT developments. We look forward to seeing how this area progresses.
Wholetime firefighters could be used more productively
The service has an effective system in place to monitor performance. Managers have regular access to performance data, such as which core competencies are due to expire and key performance indicators that are relevant to their role. The service has a structure in place for reviewing and reporting on response performance at all levels of the organisation.
Despite this, the service could do more to make sure its workforce is productive. For example:
- it carries out fewer HFSVs than the English average;
- it has carried out fewer fire safety audits in the last three years compared with the English average;
- at the time of our inspection, wholetime firefighters were not carrying out any protection work; and
- a low number of site-specific risk information records had been completed.
The service collaborates with other emergency services
We are pleased to see that the service meets its statutory duty to collaborate, and considers opportunities to collaborate with other emergency responders. The service works with the South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust and is supporting the Trust by driving ambulances. It has also provided a community first‑responder vehicle at Thornbury Fire Station.
The service has joint command and control arrangements with the police and ambulance services for major incidents. It also has several national inter-agency liaison officers to enhance communications and respond to major incidents. Avon and Somerset Police told us that these arrangements were effective during the recent civil disturbances in Bristol. We were told that sharing its headquarters with the force further complements these arrangements.
Collaborative work is aligned to the priorities in the service plan. For example, the collaboration strategy details the service’s current and future plans for collaboration. The service is currently reviewing and evaluating the benefits of its collaborations to make sure they are effective.
The service has business continuity arrangements in place
We identified as an area for improvement the fact that the service should have a business continuity plan for its fire control room. We were encouraged to see the improvements the service has made since the last inspection. The service has good continuity arrangements in place for those areas where threats and risks are considered high. For example:
- Control staff are required to complete the appropriate training in business continuity each year. These threats and risks are regularly reviewed and tested so that staff are aware of the arrangements and their associated responsibilities.
- There is a secondary control room at Kingswood Fire Station. The systems and IT have been upgraded to mirror the existing control room.
- Four exercises are carried out each year to test the arrangements.
The service has business continuity plans in case of industrial action by operational staff, which focus on maintaining critical functions. It clearly outlines what actions the service will take following the announcement of industrial action.
There are sound financial management processes in place
In the previous inspection, we identified as an area for improvement the fact that the medium-term financial plan was not linked to its service plan. We were encouraged to see the improvements the service has made. The medium-term financial plan is now clearly linked to the service plan.
The service carries out regular reviews to consider all its expenditure, including its non-pay costs. And challenge takes place which makes sure the service gets value for money. For example, a capital budget paper was presented to the fire authority members which allowed them to scrutinise the information presented.
Savings and efficiencies made have had no disproportionate impact on operational performance and the service to the public. The service is taking steps to make sure important areas, including estates, fleet and procurement, are in a position to improve their efficiency through sound financial management and best working practices. For example, the service currently shares some of its estates with its partner organisations.
In our previous inspection, the service received an ‘area for improvement’ in making sure the way it deploys supervisors to operational incidents is cost effective. The service has made progress in this area. We found that the service has two levels of watch manager. These are an A and B grade, with the watch manager B attracting a higher level of pay. Following our previous inspection, the service has completed a pilot scheme to have one level of watch manager. The service told us they will move to a structure of one watch manager per watch, via a phased approach, by 2024.
How well does the FRS make the fire and rescue service affordable now and in the future?
Avon Fire and Rescue Service is good at making itself affordable now and in the future.
Avon Fire and Rescue Service was good in its 2018/19 assessment.
Fire and rescue services should continuously look for ways to improve their effectiveness and efficiency. This includes transforming how they work and improving their value for money. Services should have robust spending plans that reflect future financial challenges and efficiency opportunities and should invest in better services for the public.
Areas for improvement
The service should assure itself that it has the capability and capacity it needs to achieve future change.
The service actively considers and exploits opportunities for generating extra income. For example, it is the only fire and rescue service in England to secure a public sector decarbonisation grant of £823,670.
We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.
The service has effective financial plans
The service has developed a sound understanding of its future financial challenges. It plans to mitigate its significant financial risks. For example, the service has acted on the pension court ruling in the ongoing firefighters pension dispute. It is also making plans for the government’s comprehensive spending review, which may affect the service.
The service’s underpinning assumptions are relatively robust, realistic and prudent, and take account of the wider external environment and some scenario planning for future spending reductions. These include a potential reduction in business rates and council tax.
We are pleased to see that the service has identified savings and investment opportunities to improve the service to the public, and generate further savings. For example:
- the service has been successful in securing an £823,670 Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme grant;
- the service has refurbished Avonmouth Fire Station and has identified other fire stations that require modernisation; and
- the transformation programme will make improvements in the service’s processes and policies.
The service has a clear plan for its reserves
The service plan details planned spending, which funding is received from different sources, and the capital requirements for the forthcoming year. The service also has a sensible and sustainable plan for using its reserves. For example, these will be used for:
- improving IT infrastructure;
- investing in national operational guidance; and
- refurbishing or redeveloping fire stations.
The fleet and estates strategies are linked to the service plan
The service’s estates and fleet strategies have clear links to the service plan. For example, the service has introduced seven new fire engines. Staff were involved in the design phase and had an opportunity to provide feedback. Both the estates and fleet strategies exploit opportunities to improve efficiency and effectiveness. For example, the service is investing in its fire stations to make them more carbon neutral, by installing charging points for electric vehicles. It is also exploring renewable energy systems. The service has a good understanding of its fleet vehicles and has a plan for when each vehicle needs to be replaced.
The service has invested in a transformation programme, but it should ensure it has the capability and capacity to make future change
The service has invested in a transformation programme which aims to improve its policies and processes through the use of digital technology. This is funded until April 2023. The chief fire officer is the senior responsible owner for the programme and there are relevant governance arrangements in place. One of the main aims of the programme is to implement the improvements in the service’s IT infrastructure. At the time of our inspection, there were several work packages in development.
The transformation programme will also seek to improve the way processes and policies are reviewed, so that this is done in an efficient and timely manner. During our inspection, we found several policies that had passed their review date – the service recognises this and has prioritised these policies for review.
The service should ensure it has the capability and capacity to make future change. Some staff we spoke to felt they were working at full capacity. We look forward to seeing the developments and outcomes of the transformation programme.
The service takes advantage of opportunities to secure external funding and generate income
The service actively considers and exploits opportunities for generating additional income. For example, its public sector decarbonisation grant of £823,670, mentioned above.
Where appropriate, it has secured external funding to invest in improvements to the service it provides to the public. This includes:
- a COVID-19 grant; and
- an additional protection uplift grant and funds from the Building Risk Review programme.
The service encourages heads of department to seek opportunities for additional external funding.