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Essex 2021/22

Efficiency

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

Last updated 27/07/2022
Requires improvement

Essex County Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency requires improvement.

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

We found that the service still lacks resource planning that clearly links to strategic priorities, so it cannot rationalise how it allocates resources to prevention, protection and response activities.

The service has made improvements to the way it scrutinises its budgets, with senior managers having better oversight of financial plans. But it must address the future financial challenges it faces, and plan for the anticipated £4m cumulative budget shortfall by 2025. The service’s use of reserves is not sustainable, and it does not make clear how it uses reserves to promote better ways of working.

The workforce could be more productive. The arrangements for managing performance are weak and don’t clearly link resource use to the IRMP and the service’s strategic priorities. Station plans are too generic and not widely understood by staff.

Collaboration opportunities with emergency service partners are actively pursued through regular group meetings and established working relationships. We heard examples of joint working with emergency service partners and were told about plans to create a joint police and fire workshop facility. At the time of the inspection, though, we found little evidence of significant efficiencies through collaboration, and no clear evidence of collaborations offering value for money.

The service now has a digital and data strategy that guides developments in information and communication technology. Since our last inspection, new systems to improve how it records and uses information have been implemented. We look forward to seeing how these improve effectiveness and efficiency.

Questions for Efficiency

1

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

Requires improvement

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

Essex County 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 £74m. This is a 1.4 percent increase from the previous financial year.

Areas for improvement

  • The service needs to show a clear rationale for the resources allocated between prevention, protection and response activities. This should be linked to risks and priorities set out in its integrated risk management plan.
  • The service should assure itself that its workforce is productive.
  • The service should assure itself that it makes the most of collaboration opportunities and that they are value for money.
  • The service should make sure that it is taking action to reduce non-pay costs and can demonstrate how it is achieving value for money.

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 plans don’t effectively support its objectives, but it is making improvements

We are disappointed to see that the service still can’t show a clear rationale for the resources allocated between prevention, protection and response activities. The service’s plans (including allocating resources to prevention, protection and response activities) still aren’t consistent with the risks and priorities identified in its IRMP. For example, the service is behind on its risk-based inspection programme due to a lack of competent staff, and it isn’t carrying out enough activity to meet all the priorities set out in its prevention strategy.

But we are encouraged to see the service is less often allocating resources based on previous funding allocations. As part of the improvements it has made so far, the service is giving budgets greater scrutiny. It has removed areas of historic underspending and the 2021/22 budget better reflects actual cost estimates. But it doesn’t always use sound scenarios to inform plans.

The service is overseeing its financial plans better, with greater engagement from senior leaders. It now reviews and updates its medium-term financial plan quarterly. This lets the service incorporate in-year changes and revised assumptions into current plans. It can also continually monitor them.

There is increased rigour in the scrutiny processes for deciding how the service will allocate resources in the future. For example, the service has plans to change its crewing model; it is in the process of converting four day-crewed stations to the on-call duty system. It is also carrying out a restructure of the prevention team. This shows the service is getting better at approaching financial planning and IRMP planning together.

We found that the service has financial controls in place through its monitoring and scrutiny arrangements. This reduces the risk of misusing public money.

The service could do more to make sure its workforce is productive

The arrangements for managing performance are weak and don’t clearly link resource use to the IRMP and the service’s strategic priorities. Station plans are too generic; staff don’t widely understand them or use them effectively to improve performance.

As we found in our last inspection, the service should do more to make sure its operational workforce is as productive as possible. This includes considering new ways of working and more engagement in prevention work. It still isn’t using its firefighters well to meet its targets. The service feels there is capacity that it could use for this purpose. It should make sure it does use it.

Staff raised concerns about the use of regular overtime and how often staff have to move between stations to support the crewing of fire engines. This is likely to be negatively affecting how efficiently the service uses its time to fulfil its priorities.

There have been some improvements to managing performance. For example, senior managers use Microsoft Power BI dashboards to make sure they are better informed about all their responsibilities. Staff have welcomed the recent investment in new technology. They feel it will improve capacity and operational performance.

The service can’t yet show its collaboration efforts are resulting in efficiencies

The service can’t yet show significant improvements in the way it uses collaboration to make efficiencies. This was an area for improvement in our last inspection, and it still needs addressing.

We are encouraged though to see it is actively exploring opportunities to work with other emergency responders. The service has established working relationships with emergency service partners and it aims to collaborate further. Examples of collaboration beyond the fire sector are:

  • sharing premises with other blue light services;
  • creating a pilot tri-service officer role; and
  • providing a cost-recovery service to the ambulance trust.

The service is planning a joint fleet workshop with the police, and is aiming to phase in a fully collaborative approach to maintenance and workshop facilities. The service also plans to invest further in fleet maintenance equipment for servicing ambulances for the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust. The budget for 2021/22 contains a £10,000 proposal to upgrade hydraulic lifts.

The service should make sure it monitors, reviews and evaluates the results and value for money of its collaborations, and uses them to learn and make decisions.

The service has business continuity plans in place

The service has good continuity arrangements in place for areas where threats and risks are high. It regularly reviews and tests these threats and risks, so staff are aware of the arrangements and their associated responsibilities. We are pleased to find fire control is using business continuity plans well. Control regularly tests fallback procedures, and it used its control business continuity plans when the pandemic affected staffing.

The service can’t show it is giving value for money

The service doesn’t have a clear understanding of how its costs compare to other similar fire and rescue services. There are no metrics in place to measure value for money. The service doesn’t currently collect or monitor any financial metrics. Nor has it done any benchmarking of costs to identify areas of comparatively high or low costs. This means it can’t be sure it is giving value for money.

Procurement isn’t centralised within the service; different departments have their own procurement staff. This means the service is unlikely to be making the best use of its resources and may not be getting the most efficient results from procurement. We found an improved approach in some areas to developing robust business cases for growth and investment, but it is not clear the whole service is systematically following this approach.

2

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

Requires improvement

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

Essex County 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 they should invest in better services for the public.

Areas for improvement

  • The service needs to better understand the financial challenges it faces. It should strengthen the assumptions that underpin its plans to manage the risk of fire and other risks now and in the future.
  • 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 assure itself that it is maximising opportunities to improve effectiveness and efficiency through the better use of technology.

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

The service isn’t addressing future financial challenges

The service has a limited understanding of future financial challenges, which weakens its ability to mitigate its main or significant financial risks. The service anticipates a cumulative budget shortfall of £4m by 2025, and there are currently no plans to tackle this.

The service budgets to spend more than its income during every year of the current medium-term financial plan. The service uses both general and earmarked reserves every year to balance the budget.

Its planning assumptions aren’t robust, realistic or prudent. It doesn’t adequately recognise the wider external environment or the inclusion of scenario planning for future spending reductions, or opportunities to invest in service improvements.

The opportunities the service has identified to make savings or generate further income are limited. It doesn’t yet have any plans to make sustainable savings that will bring its spending in line with its income.

The service’s use of reserves isn’t sustainable

The service’s plan for using its reserves isn’t sustainable. It doesn’t say how it will use reserves to promote new ways of working.

The current plan will see the general reserve drop to just £240,000 by 2024/25. This is risky for the service, particularly as all areas of the budget that were traditionally subject to underspending have been stripped out. The service’s reserves strategy, published in March 2021, says 3 percent of net revenue expenditure is the adequate level of general reserve. But £240,000 is only 0.3 percent.

Total earmarked reserves will also fall to £4.8m by 2024/25. This means the service has no cushion to protect it from unforeseen spending. And there is no financial headroom to invest in improvement and innovations.

Fleet and estates strategies support future service provision

The service’s estate and fleet strategies have clear links to the IRMP. This includes work associated with converting day-crewed stations to on-call. Both strategies make the most of opportunities to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

The service manages its estates well, with rigorous performance monitoring in place. There is also a strong emphasis on improving the environmental performance of buildings and reducing the service’s carbon footprint.

It also actively manages its fleet and replaces engines after 15 years. A few years ago, the service tried out some collaborative engine procurement and specification work with Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service, but it has now abandoned this approach.

The service regularly reviews both strategies so it can assess the impact of any changes in estate and fleet provision, including the effect on risk.

There are some ambitious projects listed in the service’s capital programme, but they are all at very early stages of development. None are fully costed or funded. High-value capital projects such as the proposed joint fleet workshop with the police will rely upon the service selling assets.

The service needs the capability and capacity to make future technical changes

The service actively considers how changes in technology and future innovation may affect risk. It also seeks to exploit opportunities to improve efficiency and effectiveness presented by changes in technology. This is aligned to the service’s IRMP through its digital and data strategy, which also guides how it develops its information and communications technology (ICT).

We are encouraged that since our last inspection the service has been implementing new systems to improve how it records and uses information. This includes information for training and development, and for prevention and protection records. But the service should make sure its systems are improving effectiveness and efficiency as intended. This was an area for improvement in our last inspection, and that area for improvement remains.

We found the ICT service is improving, with a more efficient service desk and an internal ICT liaison arrangement, pairing departments with specific ICT staff members. There is a strategy and business case to plan investment in ICT. The Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner for Essex approved the scope and funding of this project in March 2021, and the service is working on the detail.

The service must make sure it has the capacity and capability it needs to achieve sustainable change, and that it routinely seeks opportunities to work with others to improve efficiency and give better services in the future.

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

The service actively considers and exploits opportunities for generating extra income.

It has secured some external funding and support to bring about improvements to the service it gives the public. This includes:

  • sponsorship from several sources for its Firebreak intervention programme;
  • the donation of a car from a manufacturer;
  • the donation of fire bikes from a local motorcycle dealer;
  • support from Essex Police for the service’s education programme; and
  • a local authority grant for the provision of smoke alarms.

The service has recently ceased its trading arm as it found the risks and responsibilities outweighed the benefits. The company is in the process of voluntary liquidation.

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