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Bedfordshire 2021/22

Efficiency

How efficient is the fire and rescue service at keeping people safe and secure?

Last updated 15/12/2021
Requires improvement

Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency requires improvement.

Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service required improvement in its 2018/19 assessment.

Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service has sound financial management and scrutiny. It has systems and processes in place to manage its risk-based inspection programme (RBIP). But they aren’t effective and lack the proper performance management to make sure its protection workforce is both effective and productive.

The service has robust monitoring and targets for response. But it needs to make more effective use of its on-call staff. It especially needs to improve how it trains and uses these staff.

The service has targets for protection and prevention work. But it could do more so that it can assure itself of the efficiency of its service to the public (and, in turn, the efficient use of resources).

The service has made improvements in its technology. These improvements include increasing available risk information on mobile data terminals and increased ability for staff to work more flexibly.

In terms of business continuity, the service lacks plans that cover all main risks and the need to test and exercise them.

Considering the pandemic, the service is taking a prudent approach in its medium‑term financial plan in relation to government funding.

Questions for Efficiency

1

How well is the FRS making best use of its resources?

Requires improvement

Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service requires improvement at making best use of its resources.

Bedfordshire 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 2020/21 is £32.496m. This is a 1 percent increase from the previous financial year.

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure it has appropriate business continuity arrangements in place which are regularly reviewed and tested and take account of all foreseeable threats and risks.
  • The service should have effective measures in place to assure itself that its workforce is productive and that its time is used as efficiently and effectively as possible to meet the priorities in the IRMP.

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 and workforce plans, including allocating staff to prevention, protection and response, reflect (and are consistent with) the risks and priorities identified in the community risk management plan (CRMP). We found that the service clearly links its operational activity to risk, and it has carried out reviews of its operational response cover.

Since our last inspection, the service has put more money into its protection function. It used government funding to do this. However, the service should have effective measures in place to assure itself that its workforce is productive and that its time is used efficiently and effectively. For example, the service has an area for improvement that it should have effective systems and processes in place to manage its RBIP. This will impact how efficient the service is at reviewing its workforce plans.

Following our 2018 inspection, we gave the service an area for improvement. This highlighted that it should ensure it is making best use of its transformation reserve to improve how the service works.

We found evidence of the service using reserves for transformational change, including improvements to technology and mobilising systems. Where the service agrees that permanent changes will generate benefits in the future (such as programme management), it sustains these through its base budget.

The service needs to further improve how it monitors workforce productivity

After our 2018 inspection, we gave the service an area for improvement to make sure workforce time is used efficiently and effectively. This relates to the use of wholetime and fire control resources, and the potential use of on-call staff in the strategic reserve system.

The service now has a structure in place for reviewing and reporting on response performance at all levels of the organisation. This makes use of department plans and live performance information. Teams have set objectives and targets in place.
The service has also taken steps to improve the availability and productivity of on-call staff. For example, it makes more effective use of on-call firefighters to cover shortfalls at other fire stations.

However, there is limited performance management of the other main functions (such as prevention and protection). Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service has some targets in place, but it could do more to measure the service it provides to the public. For instance, it could introduce timescales for responding to safe and well referrals. As a result, the service could broaden its focus on productivity to make sure all its staff are as efficient as they can be, and resource plans stay up to date.

The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated changes to working practices which are being implemented as business as usual. The service adapted to the change in circumstances by giving staff, that could, the technology they need to work from home during the pandemic. It also changed its training methods, and how it communicates with staff, to do so virtually. It intends to continue to invest in the efficiencies that are gained from agile working.

The service is improving its evaluation of how it collaborates with partners to ensure value for money

After our 2018 inspection, we gave the service an area for improvement which highlighted that it should make sure it effectively monitors, reviews and evaluates the benefits and outcomes of any initiatives. This should include collaboration. We are encouraged to see the significant improvements the service has made on this.

The service has introduced a blue light collaboration board and a robust evaluation framework. It is carrying out a retrospective evaluation of existing partnerships and collaborations. The service has also established a reference group to evaluate its collaboration with East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust and the return on the service’s investment.

The service has an additional process for non-blue light collaborations to be proposed and evaluated. Department managers manage this process locally. The process would benefit from a more consistent approach, such as that applied to the blue light collaboration process.

The service does not have robust business continuity arrangements in place

The service has gaps in its continuity arrangements for areas where threats and risks are considered high. For example, we found limited evidence of business continuity planning or exercising of critical systems.

The service doesn’t regularly review and test business continuity plans. We found that the service has some business continuity exercising arrangements in place, but there is limited monitoring or review. This means staff aren’t fully aware of the arrangements and their associated responsibilities.

In August 2020, the service introduced a business continuity task and finish group to address these issues. We are keen to see the impact of this group in terms of making sure the service has appropriate business continuity arrangements, which it regularly reviews and tests.

The service has sound financial management and scrutiny processes in place

There are regular reviews to consider all the service’s expenditure, including its non‑pay costs. And this scrutiny makes sure the service gets value for money. For example, the service reports finance and performance through certain processes. Internal audit has reviewed these processes and given a good assessment of them. The fire authority also reviews and provides scrutiny on a quarterly basis.

Savings and efficiencies made have had no negative impact on operational performance and the service to the public. The service has taken a prudent approach in its medium-term financial plan in relation to government funding. This is because the full impact of the pandemic isn’t yet known.

The service is taking steps to make sure important areas, including estates, fleet and procurement, are able to achieve efficiency gains through sound financial management and improved working practices. The finance team supports the broader organisation. In addition, the director of finance now forms part of the corporate management team. The finance head is part of strategic meeting structures and monitors high areas of spend, such as fleet.

2

How well does the FRS make the fire and rescue service affordable now and in the future?

Good

Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service is good at making itself affordable now and in the future.

Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service required improvement 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 needs to ensure that it has a robust and comprehensive fleet strategy which is regularly reviewed and evaluated to maximise potential efficiencies.

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 robust enough plans in place to address future financial challenges

The service has a sound understanding of future financial challenges. It plans to mitigate its main or significant financial risks. The service has a savings and efficiencies plan to limit the effect of future austerity. It can show a balanced budget in the medium term. It has improved processes for managing corporate risk and mitigation. This includes specialist risk training for the corporate management team.

The underpinning financial assumptions the service works to are relatively robust, realistic and prudent, and take account of the wider external environment and some scenario planning for future spending reductions. These include government funding, business rates and pay.

We are pleased to see that the service had identified savings and investment opportunities to improve the service to the public or generate further savings. For example, it has identified savings for changes to estate and a large programme of works. The latter includes replacing the fire service control mobilising system and mobilising equipment at stations.

The service has a sustainable plan for using its reserves

After our 2018 inspection, we gave the service an area for improvement. This highlighted that the service needs to secure an affordable way of managing the risk of fire and other risks, now and in the future. This related to the service’s use of reserves to cover gaps in budget. We found the service has a sensible and sustainable plan for using its reserves, with a reduced reliance on them for filling budget gaps. The reserves strategy gives financial support for activities that arise from the CRMP. The service uses these as part of overall budget setting.

Work is required to develop a working fleet strategy

The service’s estate strategies have clear links to the CRMP. For example, the service is developing a shared estates strategy between the three blue light services. Estate-modernisation plans include more efficient heating systems, generators and uninterruptable power supplies. These plans will meet the service’s environmental needs and improve estates facilities for female staff.

It should be noted that Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service doesn’t have a fleet strategy. There is some evidence of fleet-related discussions informing the service’s plans and meeting structures. But this lack of strategy limits the service’s ability to understand its effectiveness and efficiency, and to identify opportunities to improve its fleet provision.

The service is taking steps to transform but more needs to be done

Following our 2018 inspection, we gave the service an area for improvement. This highlighted that the service needs to make better use of technology to improve bureaucratic frontline working practices that rely on paper-based processes. We found the service had taken some steps to improve in this respect, but it still needs to do more.

The service has made many positive changes. For instance, it has:

  • introduced an online referral portal for safe and well visits;
  • enhanced mobile data terminals on all fire engines;
  • implemented Microsoft Office 365; and
  • facilitated mobile working (by providing laptops and tablets).

The protection team uses a management information system. However, the system is overly reliant on manual inputs and is difficult to get information from. It is administratively burdensome and doesn’t give effective and timely management information.

The service has created a programme management office. It has also developed documentation and associated processes to standardise management of successful projects. We are keen to see the impact of this structure in managing risks resulting from complex IT projects. The service needs to assure itself that its IT systems are resilient, reliable, accurate and accessible.

The service takes advantage of opportunities to secure external funding and generate income

The service actively considers and exploits opportunities for generating extra income. For example, it generates extra income from commissioned services, including servicing vehicles for East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust.

Where appropriate, it has secured external funding to invest in improvements to the service provided to the public. Such funding includes a government grant of approximately £50,000 for building-risk-review work. The service used this money to:

  • recruit staff;
  • improve the protection team’s capabilities; and
  • buy extra equipment (such as smoke hoods and smoke curtains).
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