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Devon and Somerset 2021/22

Efficiency

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

Last updated 27/07/2022
Good

Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency is good.

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

Fire and rescue services should continually review whether its resources are located where the risks lie. The service has done this by making a bold move to close fire stations and relocating resources where the risks are greater. It also reviewed its duty systems and explored the removal of second and third fire engines at some stations.

In October 2020, the service introduced a voluntary Pay for Availability scheme for its on-call firefighters despite a lack of support from the Fire Brigades Union at national level. We look forward to seeing how the scheme develops.

In our previous inspection, we said the service needs to establish whether operational crews are productive and used efficiently to support prevention, protection and response. The service is taking steps to make sure the workforce’s time is as productive as possible. This includes implementing new ways of working.

The service has a long-standing relationship with the SWASFT, which has developed through co-responding to category 1 incidents that are classified as life threatening and needing immediate intervention. Also, in collaboration with Devon & Cornwall Police, the service has introduced new roles. These collaborations have helped the service to achieve savings, which haven’t affected its operational performance and the service it provides to the public.

Despite the good progress made in this area, Red One Ltd, has an agreed debt of over £700,000. This debt has been accumulated over several years. The trading arm has a five-year business plan in place, which details how this debt will be repaid to the fire authority.

Questions for Efficiency

1

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

Good

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

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

Fire and rescue services should manage their resources properly and appropriately, aligning them with the services’ risks and statutory responsibilities. Services should make best possible use of resources to achieve the best results for the public.

The service’s budget for 2021/22 is £74.22m. This is a 1.99 percent increase from the previous financial year.

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

There are enough resources to deliver the objectives in the IRMP

We are encouraged to see the improvements the service has made since the last inspection. The service has enough staff allocated to prevention, protection and response to reflect the risks and priorities identified in the IRMP. This was an area for improvement we identified in our last inspection. For example, the service has recruited extra protection staff and the fire authority has agreed that the service will recruit extra firefighters over the minimum number required due to staff retirements. The service would benefit from updating its IRMP to clearly show to the public the resources it has available (such as people).

The service has clear financial plans. They are built on sound scenario planning. They help make sure the service is sustainable and are underpinned by financial controls that reduce the risk of misusing public money. The executive board and the fire authority provide overview and scrutiny of the service’s budget performance to ensure the appropriate use of public money.

The service is effective at matching its resources to risk

The service made a bold move to close fire stations and relocating its resources where the risks are greater. It also reviewed its duty systems and explored the removal of second and third fire engines at some stations. We expect fire and rescue services to continually review whether their resources are located where the risks lie.

The service has the largest number of on-call firefighters in England. We are pleased that the service is continuing to review its duty systems. In October 2020, it introduced a voluntary Pay for Availability scheme for its on-call firefighters despite a lack of support from the Fire Brigades Union at national level. The scheme pays for an individual’s availability by the hour. Retainer fees, attendance and disturbance allowances are combined to reward the individual for the actual hours of availability. We spoke to on-call firefighters who welcome this scheme. At the time of our inspection, 85 percent of on-call stations had opted in. The service told us about the main benefits, which are:

  • greater flexibility in the number of hours firefighters are required to commit to;
  • more efficient use of resources by having only the required number of firefighters available at any one time; and
  • an end to unnecessary mobilisations of additional crews to stations.

However, we spoke to on-call supervisory managers who told us that their workload has increased as they are now managing the Pay for Availability duty system. The service will be carrying out an evaluation, but we are interested to see how this scheme develops in future.

Wholetime staff are more productive

In our previous inspection, we said the service needs to establish whether operational crews are productive and used efficiently to support prevention, protection and response. We are encouraged to see the improvements the service has made. The service’s arrangements for managing performance are clearly linked to the service’s strategic priorities.

The service is taking steps to make sure the workforce’s time is as productive as possible. This includes implementing new ways of working. The service has recently introduced new work routines for its wholetime staff. The station calendars are populated by the central administration team with prevention, protection and response activities, including training. Activities such as e-learning are carried out during the night. This makes sure that all wholetime staff are productive in what they do.

The service has also recently introduced HSVs that wholetime staff complete. Most staff we spoke to welcome this as they wish to be seen out in their community and providing support where needed.

The service has a structure to review and report on performance at all levels of the organisation. It publishes performance data on its website every three months, which includes response information.

The service is effective at collaborating with others

We are pleased to see the service meets its statutory duty to collaborate, and routinely considers opportunities to collaborate with other emergency responders. The service has a long-standing relationship with the SWASFT. It co-responds with the SWASFT to category 1 incidents that are classified as life threatening and needing immediate intervention. Also, in collaboration with Devon & Cornwall Police, the service has introduced the following roles:

  • Community support officer (combines a police community support officer and an on-call firefighter).
  • Community responder (an on-call firefighter trained as a special constable).

This is a practice that achieves financial efficiencies and benefits for the community and the services involved. An evaluation of the community responder role has been carried out, which has identified some improvements to be made. We look forward to seeing how these roles develop.

The service has a collaboration plan, which outlines the several collaborations it has. The service should continue to review and evaluate the benefits and results of all its collaborations.

There are clear business continuity plans in place

We are encouraged to see the improvements the service has made since the last inspection. The service has 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. As part of the NFSP, the service regularly tests its ability to take calls from its neighbouring fire services. Any learning points are documented and incorporated into its process.

Despite business continuity exercises taking place, the service would benefit from carrying out an exercise in a full evacuation of its control room as this hasn’t been carried out for several years. It is unclear how the service would cope in a situation in which they couldn’t use the control room for several hours or days.

The service shows sound financial management

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 fire authority reviews the service’s expenditure on a regular basis. The service also has external auditors who review the service’s financial management and its sustainability.

The service has made savings and efficiencies, which haven’t affected its operational performance and the service it provides to the public. We found that:

  • it received capital of £367,000 by selling one of its fire stations; and
  • removing 9 fire engines has reduced its fleet costs by £2.49m, with ongoing annual savings.
2

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

Requires improvement

Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service requires improvement at making the service affordable now and in the future.

Devon and Somerset 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 make sure that its fleet and estate strategies are regularly reviewed and evaluated to maximise potential efficiencies.
  • The service should be aware of, and invest in, developments in technology and future innovation to help improve and sustain operational efficiency and effectiveness.

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

The service understands its future financial challenges

The service has a sound understanding of future financial challenges. It plans to mitigate its main or significant financial risks. For example, the service has acted on the pension court ruling in the ongoing firefighters pension dispute.

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 a potential reduction in council tax and business rates. The service also plans to implement a zero-based budget approach in the 2022/23 year. This should generate further savings as finances will be spent only when needed.

The service’s Pay for Availability scheme was first introduced in October 2020. It is anticipated the service will incur an additional £2.8m expenditure per year from this investment if all stations take up the scheme. It is too early to tell whether the scheme provides value for money for the public as the full benefits are yet to be realised.

There is a clear reserves plan

The service has a sensible and sustainable plan for using its reserves. The fire authority aims for the general reserve to be maintained at 5 percent of the annual budget. At the start of 2020/21, the general reserve exceeded this at 6.88 percent of the authority’s net revenue budget.

The service has generous reserves as these have been built up over several years from underspending in the capital programme and savings made in other areas. There is a clear plan for how these reserves will be used. A significant amount of funding has been set aside to support the change activity such as the service’s digital transformation and development of its people.

The fleet and estates plans should be aligned to the IRMP

The service has a fleet plan, but the estates plan was still in draft. As mentioned earlier, the service would benefit from aligning its plans to its IRMP. We found that in some important areas such as fleet and estates, little progress is being made to achieve greater efficiencies through national initiatives and contracts. And the service doesn’t exploit opportunities often enough to improve efficiency and effectiveness presented by changes in fleet and estate provision.

The service has a ten-year plan for its fleet. Operational staff we spoke to were pleased to be involved in the design phase when introducing new fire engines. At the time of our inspection, the service had just commissioned a survey to review all its estates. We found that some of the service’s estates were in disrepair and staff we spoke to often told us that any problems identified in the estates take a long time to resolve. We found that a drill tower had been decommissioned because required improvements had not been made, and some stations had problems with their heating system, which are yet to be fixed. We would encourage the service to make improvements in its estates.

There is an environmental plan in place. Improvements are planned, such as making waste reduction a priority and introducing telematics in vehicles. We recognise the service is investing £314,000 from its reserves to make environmental improvements throughout the service.

The service should use technology to help improve and sustain operational efficiency and effectiveness

The service has a digital plan, which details how new technology will support staff. The service uses technology to improve efficiency and effectiveness. For example, it has partly released a new risk information IT application. This allows prevention, protection and response to share information instantly in one system.

At the time of our inspection, the service was rolling out Microsoft 365. We spoke to some staff who told us that the service releases several new IT applications; however, these aren’t always further developed and limited support is provided when the applications are released. For example, most operational staff spoken to told us there wasn’t a method to record any CPD that takes place at an individual fire station. Management told us there is a way to record this, but this appears not to have been communicated effectively.

We found that prevention, protection and response staff record most of their activities in a paper-based system. This isn’t an efficient use of time as the same staff then transfer the information to the relevant IT system.

Trading arm

As we reported in our last inspection, the fire authority had set up a trading arm, Red One Ltd. The company provides services to other fire and rescue services, the public and the commercial sector. At the time of our inspection, Red One Ltd, has an agreed debt of over £700,000. This debt has been accumulated over several years.

The trading arm has a five-year business plan in place, which details how this debt will be repaid to the fire authority. The business plan also details how fundamental changes have been made to the way the trading arm operates. The fire authority produces group consolidated accounts reflecting the performance of the service and Red One Ltd. In addition, the service has two non-executive directors on the board and controls to safeguard against conflicts of interest are in place.

In view of the accrued debt, we will continue to have regard to the way the contract is administered, although we accept that responsibility for the contract rests with the fire authority

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