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Buckinghamshire 2021/22

Efficiency

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

Last updated 15/12/2021
Requires improvement

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

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

The service remains in a similar financial position as it was in our first inspection in 2019. Its lean operational response model, combined with an increase in capacity, has addressed our previous cause of concern. The service maintains its 12 immediately available fire engines on nearly all occasions; this is a significant improvement from our first inspection.

However, the response model is supported by spending from its reserves. The service hopes that its income will increase in the future, but it is not sufficiently addressing its current shortfalls to effectively allocate resource to risk. This gives us concerns about whether the service’s model, and in particular its 18 additional resilience fire engines, are long-lasting over time.

This model is having negative effects on staff throughout the service. Staff are working hard to do what they can within the resources they have, but some teams are overstretched and aren’t getting the support they need to do their work effectively, improve their processes, increase productivity and develop their careers.

These concerns are acknowledged by the service, but the lack of a clear plan for improving this situation is leading to staff feeling frustrated and to low productivity in its statutory functions of prevention and protection. The service needs to improve this situation by setting clear priorities for what it wants to achieve with the resources it has to make the best use of them. It should also do more to use its existing collaborations and explore new opportunities.

Questions for Efficiency

1

How does the FRS make best use of its resources?

Requires improvement

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

Buckinghamshire 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 knows its main financial risks and has developed and delivers a unique demand-risk-led model of operational response. The service’s budget for 2020/21 is £28.1 million. This is a 3.3 percent increase from the previous financial year.

Areas for improvement

  • The service should have effective measures in place to assure itself that its workforce is productive, that their time is used as efficiently and effectively as possible and in a more joined up way to meet the priorities in the IRMP.
  • The service should actively seek further collaboration opportunities with other Thames Valley fire services, to achieve value for money and better outcomes for the public.

We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.

The service plans to deal flexibly with its immediate financial difficulty

Since our previous inspection, the service has worked hard to address the cause of concern and increase its capacity to meet its IRMP. The service conducted a consultation with the public about its financial situation before publication of the latest version of this plan. Although there has been a slight increase in the service’s income, it has been able to make additional financial savings. It has reallocated this resource to significantly increase its protection team, recruit more firefighters and provide additional resource to its prevention team.

The service sometimes uses its resources well to manage risk, but there are still weaknesses that need addressing. For example, it is positive that the service has carried out a zero-based budgeting exercise (where all expenditure has to be justified, rather than assuming that previous spending should continue); this has enabled it to recruit additional apprentice firefighters and staff within its prevention and protection teams. The service’s response model is still reliant on the use of some overtime and a formalised ‘bank shift’ system (a secondary contract to work as and when there is a shortage in the service), which allows flexibility for the service but presents challenges and requires significant resources to manage. Currently the use of ‘bank shifts’ and maintaining the availability of fire engines is managed by a team of six support staff and watch managers.

The service’s plans, including allocating resources to prevention, protection and response activities, aren’t consistent with the limited risks and priorities identified in the IRMP. For example, the service needs to identify those most at risk from fire in order to better target activity at those most vulnerable.

The service’s immediate financial plans are built on sound scenario planning. They help make sure it endures in the short term and are underpinned by financial controls that reduce the risk of misusing public money. The service has recently introduced a financial plan that lays out scenarios based on possible changes to future income and anticipated increases in expenditure. These scenarios help the service to plan and understand how it will meet its short-term gaps in funding.

The service could do more to increase its productivity and improve its ways of working

We were encouraged to see the improvements the service has made since the last inspection to the appraisal of individuals. We are pleased to see that the arrangements for managing performance clearly link individual development to the service’s most important aims. Managers reported having had training in the personal development review process and most staff reported having positive conversations with their line managers to support individual performance. Staff don’t fully understand how their individual performance contributes to the strategic direction.

The service has considered and implemented new ways of working. For example, it has introduced a ‘flexi firefighter contract’, which enables staff to work a more flexible shift pattern. The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated changes to working practices, which are being incorporated into to the service’s ‘business as usual’. These include supporting staff whose roles allow them to work from home or at other remote locations by providing the technology to easily access systems and processes.

The service should do more to make sure its workforce is as productive as possible in all work areas. For example, we heard that operational staff do limited prevention and protection activity and that there are areas where the service has manual processes that could be automated. Staff felt unsure of what to prioritise, how much work there was overall, and what more they could be doing to contribute towards the service’s overall outputs and to address the needs of the community. Prevention and protection priorities are not clearly understood and it is difficult for staff to be confident that they are focusing their activities in the areas where they will add most value.

The service relies heavily on its ‘bank shift’. On average, 25 to 30 percent of the response model is made up of staff carrying out ’bank shifts’. It is dependent on its workforce completing these ‘bank shifts’ to maintain its 12 immediately available fire engines.

The service collaborates when possible

We are pleased to see that the service meets its statutory duty to collaborate and routinely considers opportunities to collaborate with other emergency responders. It continues to collaborate on joint purchasing, and told us that the three Thames Valley fire and rescue services are to collaborate on the procurement of breathing apparatus equipment, aligning the services’ response and operations models.

The Blue Light Hub became occupied by the three emergency services (Buckinghamshire FRS, Thames Valley Police and South Central Ambulance Service) during the pandemic which has encouraged joint activity. The service is looking to further collaboration through this project. The service is also working on its upcoming wide area network/local area network (WAN/LAN) upgrade in collaboration with the local council and NHS.

Throughout the pandemic, the service has been significant in co-ordinating, leading and delivering activity including vaccination and test centres, and food parcel collection and delivery, and has been ready and willing to provide drivers to the South Central Ambulance Service. The service is looking to continue this collaborative approach beyond the pandemic recovery and hopes to continue to have several staff become qualified in both firefighting operations and a basic level of paramedic response.

Though we are satisfied that the service monitors, reviews and evaluates the benefits and results of its collaborations, this is sometimes limited in scope. The service has identified areas from which it can learn and from which it has made savings, such as in the joint Thames Valley Control room, but it doesn’t always apply this learning to improve its decision-making. The Blue Light Hub currently has unoccupied space and the project is currently forecast to overspend. The service explained that the learning from the recent development of its headquarters site identified the need for more space for its staff. But as this has not yet been implemented, the additional floor at the Blue Light Hub remains unoccupied and the service has yet to benefit from its additional investment. The service should continue to actively seek collaboration opportunities with other fire services to achieve value for money and better results for the public.

The service has good continuity arrangements

The service continues to have good continuity arrangements in place for areas where threats and risks are considered high. These threats and risks are regularly reviewed and tested so that staff are aware of the arrangements and their associated responsibilities. The service’s flu pandemic plans were detailed enough that it was able to provide an initial robust response. It reviewed these plans during the COVID-19 pandemic and has updated them during the recovery phase.

Thames Valley Control have robust and regularly tested business continuity arrangements in place in case of disruption, cyber-attack or a major incident requiring multiple fire survival guidance calls or a national response.

The service shows sound financial management, but it could make improvement in its resource allocation

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 business case for the WAN/LAN essential upgrade was challenged at both the senior management board and fire authority board. The service has ‘growth and saving’ bid processes twice a year to make sure its spending is within the limits of the IRMP.

The service’s current financial position means that some of its departments have reduced significantly. This is having a disproportionate impact on performance within these areas. We heard that staff feel under pressure and that they need additional resources to be able to provide the best service possible to the public.

Staffing of the response model can be a struggle, although improvements have been made, including the recruitment of new apprentices. The service is having to make difficult decisions and it is struggling to provide enough support to its main functions such as prevention and protection, especially skilled and experienced staff. In important areas such as procurement, efficiencies are being made through national initiatives and contracts, but these savings are not large enough to fund the increase in the number of firefighters the service states it needs. The service continues to be creative and do more with less, as is shown by its support during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The service could do more to make sure that important areas, including estates and fleet, are in a position to make efficiency gains. The fleet strategy is due for review in 2022 and the estate strategy is due for review in 2023. The service could be more ambitious in its future plans to make increased savings.

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

Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service requires improvement at making itself affordable now and in the future.

Buckinghamshire 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 assure itself that it is maximising opportunities to improve workforce productivity and develop future capacity through use of innovation, including the use of appropriate and up-to-date technology.
  • The service should have a clear and sustainable strategic plan for the use of its reserves, which promotes new ways of working.
  • The service needs to make sure that its fleet and estate strategies are 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 works hard to continually improve value for money and do more with less

We are encouraged to see the improvements the service has made since the last inspection. It has developed a sound understanding of future financial challenges. It plans to mitigate its main or significant financial risks. The previous area for improvement regarding this has been fully met. It is working hard both at a national and local level to secure an increase in the flexibility of the council tax precept (the share of council tax proceeds allocated to the service). It uses additional grant money wisely to invest in current opportunities.

The 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 the cessation of the revenue grants for urban search and rescue and the impact of pending pension rulings.

We are pleased to see that the service has identified savings and investment opportunities to improve its service to the public or generate further savings. It has conducted a zero-based budgeting exercise to realise savings and will continue to do so regularly in the future. It has also introduced a business transformation and programme management office to maintain the alignment, progress and efficiency of its major change projects.

Reserves are reducing significantly

The service’s plan for its reserves is unclear and isn’t sustainable. We heard that the service is anticipating that its reserves will reduce from £4.6m to £2.8m over the coming year and these will continue to decrease if the council tax precept doesn’t rise. The service has set aside funding for its main business continuity project of upgrading its WAN/LAN infrastructure and to establish a leadership development programme. It also sets aside part of its reserves to continue to fund the shared control room. With a reduction in reserves, it’s unlikely that the service can invest in new, large‑scale, future capital projects in fleet, estates or technology, such as that seen for the development of the Blue Light Hub.

Fleet and estates are affected by the reducing reserves

The service has fleet and estates strategies, but these don’t exploit opportunities to improve efficiency and effectiveness presented by changes in fleet and estate provision. This is due in part to the service’s reduced reserves, which may not allow for investment in future capital projects. The senior management team are yet to review the strategies beyond 2022 and 2023.

The service showed us evidence of the way it is assessing the possible impact on risk of changes in estate and fleet provision or future innovation. It has identified the need to improve or redevelop one of its stations. The local council offered the service the opportunity to relocate to a new site. Through thorough planning and assessment, the service identified that the relocation to this particular site would have a significant impact on response times in the local area, negatively affecting the public in the case of an emergency and it is now seeking an alternative option.

Transformation is stifled by the limited future funding scenario

Although the service has invested in some technological solutions to improve its efficiency, these have not resulted in the savings it may have hoped for. It rarely considers how changes in technology and future innovation can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its workforce. The business and integrated systems project introduced in 2019 has not delivered on the integration of all systems as intended. We were told that it was successful in reducing workloads and processes in the finance, payroll and HR functions. But neither the upgrade of the premises risk management system nor that for fleet and estates management resulted in all of the anticipated improvements for prevention, protection and response. There is little or no consideration of exploiting such opportunities throughout the service due to financial constraints.

The service has limited capacity and capability to bring about sustainable future change. Although it has previously worked with others to improve efficiency, it is currently struggling to identify opportunities to do more.

The service has limited opportunities to generate increased income

The service considers options for generating extra income, but its ambition and track record in securing extra income is limited. It continues to generate an income of £90,000 by renting out its operational drill towers to house mobile phone masts.

The service hasn’t been able to secure external funding to invest in improvements to what it provides the public. It intends to develop and invest in the additional space at the Blue Light Hub, but this has yet to be fully realised and incorporated into its funding.