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Cheshire 2021/22

Efficiency

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

Last updated 15/12/2021
Good

Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency is good.

Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service was good in its 2018/19 assessment.

We are encouraged to see the efficiency-related improvements the service has made since our last inspection. These include plans to:

  • secure savings in the medium term, by widening scenario planning and testing for future financial arrangements; and
  • ensure that estates and procurement are well placed to achieve efficiency gains, by reducing CO2 emissions and joint procurement with police.

However, its fleet strategy is unclear and lacks detail.

The service makes good use of its resources. It has effective measures to assure itself that staff use their time to meet the priorities in its IRMP. It also collaborates with other emergency responders, and recently introduced a framework to monitor, review and evaluate the benefits and end results of its collaboration activities.

It should improve and increase the regularity with which it reviews its business continuity plans with fire control.

Questions for Efficiency

1

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

Good

Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service is good at making best use of its resources.

Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service was good 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 £46.203m. This is a 3.06 percent increase from the previous financial year.

Areas for improvement

The service should ensure the corporate ownership of business continuity at North West Fire Control and that all staff understand the arrangements and their associated responsibilities.

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

The service’s current financial plans support its objectives

We are encouraged to see the improvements the service has made since the last inspection. The service’s financial and workforce plans, including allocating staff to prevention, protection and response, are consistent with the risks and priorities identified in the integrated risk management plan (IRMP).

We are pleased to note that the service has taken steps to address the 2018 area for improvement to make more robust plans to secure savings in the medium term. For example, in 2020, it introduced priority-based budgeting. This means that the service can review its entire budget, and link resources (money and people) to services provided. We are interested to see how the service realises the full potential of priority-based budgeting.

The service’s financial plans are built on sound scenarios. They help ensure that the service has sufficient resources in the long term and are underpinned by financial controls that reduce the risk of misusing public money.

The service has measures to ensure that its workforce’s time is used to meet the priorities in the integrated risk management plan

We are pleased to see that the service’s arrangements for managing performance clearly link resource use to the IRMP and service’s strategic priorities.

The service has a structure to review and report on performance at all levels of the organisation. For example, fire station audits ensure that activities such as home fire safety visits and training courses are carried out. They can also highlight where improvements are needed.

The service is taking steps to make sure the workforce’s time is as productive as possible. Its Station Management Framework gives managers a structure for managing and monitoring station activity and performance. There is evidence of teams having objectives and targets. Additionally, it is reviewing some existing shift patterns and expanding its fleet of rapid-response rescue units to all primary on-call stations, to improve the availability of its staff.

The service had to adapt its working practices as a result of the pandemic, and these are still part of its day-to-day activity. For example, the service quickly adapted to help staff to work from home. It also changed the structure of on-call drill nights and fitness testing.

It intends to continue to maximise agile working and actively participates in the national on-call working group.

The service collaborates with other emergency services to achieve value for money

We are encouraged to see the improvements the service has made since our 2018 inspection. It has introduced a collaboration and strategy evaluation framework in response to the area for improvement concerning monitoring and reviewing the results of any collaboration.

The service comprehensively monitors, reviews and evaluates the benefits and results of its collaborations. Notable results include a review of safe and well visits. The service’s Safe and well evaluation report states that atrial fibrillation referrals have potentially saved the NHS “up to £500,000 in gross treatment costs and provided potential annual benefits worth up to £720,000”.

We are pleased to see the service meets its statutory duty to collaborate, and routinely considers opportunities to collaborate with other emergency responders. For example, the service now shares a headquarters with Cheshire Constabulary. It is exploring the potential for a shared fire, police and ambulance station in Wilmslow.

Collaborative work is aligned to the priorities in the service’s IRMP. For example, mental health and family support advocates work with local authority teams to support vulnerable individuals.

The pandemic has seen the service collaborate with other organisations in many new ways. For example, it provided more than 100 staff volunteers to support the mass vaccination centre in February 2021. It has also made vaccination checks part of the safe and well visit.

The service benefits from joint procurement with the police, which improves spending power and can lead to savings, for example, in relation to technology.

At the time of our inspection, it was reviewing the way it works with North West Fire Control (fire control), a regional facility it shares with three other fire and rescue services. We are interested to see what improvement opportunities the review identifies. Both the service and fire control recognise that changes can take time to implement and must meet the needs of all services.

The service has business continuity plans in place, although fire control arrangements haven’t been fully tested

The service has business continuity plans in place for industrial action by operational (grey book) staff that focus on maintaining critical functions. The plans are regularly reviewed and contain work instructions relating to each of the relevant functions so that staff are aware of the plans and their associated responsibilities. We are encouraged to find that the service is making progress to address actions from an IT continuity audit carried out in 2020.

There are also business continuity plans in place at North West Fire Control (fire control). However, we found that a full evacuation to the secondary control room hasn’t been tested. Also, the service hasn’t reviewed these plans for itself since September 2017. (The service currently rotates reviews with other fire and rescue services.)

We recommend that the service considers how frequently it directly reviews the business continuity plans for fire control.

The service is taking action to reduce non-pay costs

We are encouraged to see the improvements the service has made since our 2018 inspection.

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, finance and performance are reported through processes that have been reviewed and judged to be good by internal audit. Cheshire Fire Authority also provides review and scrutiny on a quarterly basis.

The service has made savings and efficiencies, which haven’t disproportionately affected its operational performance and the service it provides to the public. The service expects that its use of priority-based budgeting will help provide future savings. It is also taking steps to make sure that important areas, including estates and procurement, are well placed to achieve efficiency gains through sound financial management and best working practices.

Its medium-term financial plan takes a prudent approach to government funding, as the full impact of the pandemic has yet to be seen.

2

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

Good

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

Cheshire 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 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 sufficiently robust plans in place that address future financial challenges

Our 2018 inspection identified the management of non-pay costs and the use of comparative data as an area for improvement. We are encouraged to see the improvements the service has made since then. The service has developed a sound understanding of future financial challenges. It plans to mitigate its main or significant financial risks. For example:

  • the service has developed different scenarios to respond to unanticipated risks or events that may affect its budget; and
  • the use of comparative data is now considered as part of the collaboration framework.

The underpinning assumptions are robust, realistic and prudent. They take account of the wider external environment and some scenario planning, such as government funding, business rates and pay, for future spending reductions. We are pleased to see that the service has identified savings and investment opportunities to improve the service to the public or generate further savings. For example:

  • savings made in other areas of the service have been reinvested in firefighting and rescue operations; and
  • £12m from reserves has been used to invest in a new training centre.

The service has a clear plan for its reserves

The service has a sensible and long-term plan for using its reserves. Its reserves strategy provides financial support to help meet programmes arising from the IRMP – for example, the construction of its new training facility.

The general reserve is maintained at approximately 5 percent of the service’s budget.

Fleet and estate activity are linked to the integrated risk management plan, although the fleet strategy lacks detail

The service’s estate and fleet strategies have clear links to the IRMP. For example:

  • introducing a fleet of rapid-response rescue units to improve incident response times in rural areas and increase on-call availability; and
  • replacing or modernising fire stations to support preparedness and the ability to provide a service to the public. Estate modernisation plans include building a zero‑carbon station in Chester, as well as a joint facility with police and ambulance services in Wilmslow.

However, it should be noted that the fleet strategy document lacks detail such as:

  • overall objectives and targets;
  • expected performance levels and service standards; and
  • how the service measures success and achievements.

This limits its ability to understand its effectiveness and efficiency, and identify opportunities to improve.

The service invests in technology to increase connectivity and sustainability

The service actively considers how changes in technology and future innovation may affect risk, as well as enhance its resources, efficiency and effectiveness. For example:

  • the service is making good progress with its plan to upgrade the mobile data terminals on fire engines and make them 4G compatible;
  • it has achieved a 41 percent reduction in CO2 emissions since 2009 through its estates modernisation programme and use of electric vehicles;
  • it will continue to improve the way it uses technology for online meetings, training and agile working; and
  • joint teams with the police (representing finance, estates and IT) have increased spending power and provided opportunities for joint procurement in relation to some vehicles and estates.

The service has used its internal expertise to develop a bespoke system to gather and share risk and enforcement information for prevention and protection activities. It is also in the process of reviewing arrangements with North West Fire Control to anticipate future technology requirements.

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, from commissioned services such as the Cheshire East road safety initiative. Where appropriate, it has secured external funding to invest in improvements to the service provided to the public. Such funding includes a government grant for building risk review work. The money is being used for:

  • recruitment;
  • uplifting capabilities within the protection team; and
  • purchasing additional equipment such as smoke hoods, 51mm hose and
    smoke curtains.

The service has also made an agreement with a health care partnership to recover the additional costs associated with providing support (costs such as salaries, travel and subsistence) at the mass vaccination centre.

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