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Merseyside 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
Outstanding

Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency is outstanding.

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

The service’s medium-term financial plan shows how it will finance the priorities in its integrated risk management plan. Priorities include:

  • recruiting firefighters to improve fire cover; and
  • changing shift patterns to increase capacity.

It is unusual for a service to recruit to increase establishment in such austere times. And it is innovative, some might say bold, to change traditional shift patterns. It is clear the service plans and uses its resources effectively to reduce risk and meet its statutory responsibilities.

The service has worked/partnered with a range of external organisations since long before emergency services were obliged to do so. Some collaborations generate revenue, some make savings. An ambitious capital programme is currently underway to develop a new training and development academy with the North West Ambulance Service (NWAS), which, the service anticipate, will contribute £3m to the facility.

Technology is another significant part of the service’s capital programme, which strikes a good balance between replacing obsolete systems and digitalising frontline services. Our last inspection found the service to be over reliant on paper-based systems. It is positive that this has been addressed through the issue of digital devices such as mobiles and tablets.

The service continuously looks for ways to improve its effectiveness and efficiency, including transforming the way it works and improving value for money. It has:

  • a good understanding of future financial challenges and makes good use of its reserves; and
  • a good track record of making savings and efficiencies without compromising front line services.

Additionally, its buildings programme and fleet management are linked to the priorities in its integrated risk management plan.

The service’s response to COVID-19 has created lasting flexible and agile working benefits for staff. It has been a valued partner in the regional response, helping co‑ordinate mass and surge testing. Volunteers from the service have vaccinated over 10,000 people.

Questions for Efficiency

1

How does the FRS make best use of its resources?

Outstanding

Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service is outstanding at making best use of its resources.

Merseyside 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 £59.25m. This is a 4.4 percent decrease from the previous financial year, according to information provided by the service.

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 clear priorities for 2021/24 and is investing in frontline services

The service presented the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority budget and financial plan 2021/22 to 2025/26 (its medium-term financial plan) to the fire authority in February 2021. The plan will finance the priorities in the service’s integrated risk management plan 2021/24 which was due for publication at the time of our inspection.

The service’s priorities include:

  • recruitment, increasing the number of firefighters (after a re-appraisal of minimum fire cover) and fire protection specialists (to support the government’s Building Risk Review Programme);
  • changing shift patterns to increase capacity;
  • strengthening the fire safety inspection programme by increasing the use of operational members of staff;
  • digitalising front line services to move away from paper-based systems; and
  • making efficiencies so that money saved can be re-invested in service improvements.

The service is also investing in additional professional qualifications for fire protection staff.

The service has good performance management arrangements

We are pleased that the performance management arrangements in departmental and station plans clearly link to the strategic priorities in the integrated risk management plan. They reflect the plan’s themes (demand, risk and vulnerability) and explain how individuals should contribute to and respond to them.

Each fire station is expected to complete activities including:

Station and watch managers monitor progress on a dashboard, which is part of the service’s performance management system. It allows them to track their teams’ progress, as well as compare it against other teams in the organisation.

The service has changed traditional shift patterns to make staff time as productive as possible without compromising minimum levels of fire cover. The original two-two-four arrangement has on some stations been replaced with other shift systems, this is managed by the new time and resource management team.

The new arrangements make more staff available during the day, which means that all shifts can be organised by activity. Activities are primarily focused on the priorities in the integrated risk management plan, but also include staff training and community activities such as home fire safety checks and premises audits.

The new arrangements, which include retained contracts for wholetime firefighters, also give the service more flexibility to recall staff for out of hours cover.

The service is making similar adjustments to shift patterns in the fire control room. Contracts for new joiners include more dayshifts, which is in line with demand. A retainer gives the service flexibility to recall them to work out of hours if there is a large scale operational incident or unforeseen demand.

We are encouraged that the service’s response to COVID-19 has created lasting benefits. For example, the accelerated issue of digital tablets for better compliance with Public Health England workplace guidance. Also, the introduction of flexible and agile working.

The service has a long-standing commitment to partnership working and can clearly define the benefits of its joint ventures

The service has worked/partnered with a range of external organisations since long before emergency services were legally obliged to consider collaboration arrangements in 2017.

The Blue Light Collaboration Programme Board oversees the service’s partnership activity. The deputy chief fire officer represents the service. Each business case for collaboration is considered under the categories shared estate, operations, and support services. Cases are methodically screened for efficiency, effectiveness, public safety and savings benefits in line with the integrated risk management plan.

The service shares premises with other emergency services at multiple locations including Croxteth, Birkenhead and Formby. The flagship joint command and control centre at headquarters is jointly funded by the fire and police and crime commissioners’ capital programmes. As well as realising a recurring £340,000 saving to both organisations, it hosts state-of-the-art command facilities for the emergency services and the local resilience forum.

An ambitious capital programme is currently underway to develop a new training and development academy with the NWAS. NWAS plans to base its hazardous area response team at the site.

The service has a long-standing commitment to the region’s health priorities, which are defined in Merseyside’s joint strategic needs assessment. It has been a valued partner in the regional response to the pandemic, helping to co-ordinate mass and surge testing. Volunteers from the service have vaccinated 10,000 people.

The service has good continuity arrangements in place

The service has good continuity arrangements in place to address risks to its services. These are set out in the service’s business continuity management service policy, which was last reviewed in March 2021.

For the highest risk activities, such as 999 call handling in fire control, plans are routinely tested to examine how the service would recover from technology or electrical supply failings. These include an evacuation to alternative sites. Should there be a surge in demand on the service, fall-back call handling facilities are in place with another service.

The service has taken learning from the experience and used it to make improvements. For example, it introduced annual resilience contracts that make enhancements (a lump sum) available to front line staff who provide resilience cover to the service.

The service is good at making savings, which it plans to reinvest this year

The service has a good track record of making savings and efficiencies without compromising front line services. (In this report, we class making savings as saving money, and making efficiencies as working for less money.)

Since 2010/11, HM Government’s grant has reduced from £46.3m to £30.8m, a 50 percent overall reduction in real terms. A previous establishment of 1,000 firefighters has been reduced to the current budgeted figure of just over 600 and the number of fire stations has been reduced.

Budget setting is subject to scrutiny by the fire authority and expenditure is reviewed quarterly. Proposals for investment must be linked to the priorities in the integrated risk management plan.

The medium-term financial plan was approved by the authority in February 2021. It strikes a good balance between making savings and making investments to support the service’s ambitions. For example, the service’s capital programme will enable it to modernise its estate. The new crewing model will provide revenue generation opportunities and fund the new training and development academy.

We found good examples of how savings are being re-invested in service improvements. A combination of the re-design of the operating model, modernising contracts and cumulative savings have led to a £1m investment in additional firefighters. This will increase the establishment from 620 to 642. It has also enabled the service to recruit additional fire safety personnel in the protection team.

2

How well is the FRS securing an affordable way of managing the risk of fire and other risks now and in the future?

Good

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

Merseyside 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.

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 plans to address financial challenges

The service has a good understanding of its future financial challenges. In common with other fire and rescue services, uncertainties stem from the government limiting future funding to an in-year settlement for 2021/22. The settlement reflects an uplift of 0.2 percent of government funding instead of the expected 1 percent.

The service has identified £500,000 savings in support functions and technical adjustments to the medium-term financial plan, which is balanced. However, this is predicated on annual savings being realised – these are £760,000 in 2022/23, rising to £1.49m in 2024/25.

These calculations are based on a range of assumptions including pay freezes, precept increase, business rate and employer pension contributions. The underpinning assumptions are as robust as they can be. The service has agreement from the fire authority that, following the spending review, future savings requirements will be re-appraised.

In the interest of value for money, the service has outsourced (that is, contracted external organisations to provide) its mainstream support services in estates management, information technology, fleet services and pension administration. As part of an internal audit programme, it is working with Liverpool City Council to benchmark non-pay costs with other fire and rescue services.

The use of reserves supports financial security and future ambition

The service is making a sustainable and constructive use of its reserves. It maintains £3m (5 percent of its net operating expenditure) in general reserves to provide security in the event of unforeseeable financial pressure. This is in line with the advice of its external auditors and the Fire and Rescue National Framework.

Reserves have also been set aside to address known or predictable liabilities. We are encouraged to see these reserves could be used to address recurring risks. For example, the need to pay insurance excesses. They will also pay for improvements. The service has a modernisation reserve of £1.6m for recruitment and associated training, and continued restructuring.

The service links its fleet and estate activity to the integrated risk management plan

The service’s buildings programme and fleet management are linked to the priorities in its integrated risk management plan, as well as its ambition to transform services. Previously, the disposal and acquisition of new buildings had more to do with the budgetary restraints of austerity than a desire to improve.

The Property Asset Management Plan 2021-2026 reflects the importance of maintaining ten key fire stations at all times as part of its response model. Other important aspects of the plan include:

  • A project to modernise buildings at Prescot, Saughall Massie and St Helens that will realise savings, better align front line staff to demand and better accommodate the needs of a modern workforce.
  • Plans to build a new training and development academy, including an option for a new fire station to replace ageing facilities at Croxteth and Aintree.
  • Developments at community fire stations to promote the service’s prevent agenda. For example, Toxteth will increase its youth provision and work with Safe Havens, which provides places of safety for vulnerable people.

The service’s fleet strategy is an integral part of its capital programme. Fleet managers are responsible for in-house functions including design, procurement, maintenance, engineering and technical support. There is a strong approach to environmental considerations such as emissions and the viability of emerging technology for the future fleet.

The service invests in technology to improve ways of working

Investment in technology is a significant part of the service’s capital programme. It strikes a good balance between replacing obsolete systems and digitalising frontline services (to improve efficiency). Recent investments include:

  • a new call handling and mobilising system has been introduced in fire control;
  • mobile data terminals have been upgraded; and
  • software to support routinely used applications is being installed.

Our last inspection found the service to be over reliant on paper-based systems. It is positive that this has been addressed through the issue of digital devices such as mobiles and tablets. This makes important data, such as site-specific risk information more readily available to crews attending incidents.

The service has issued 460 devices since our last inspection. They are transforming routine activity. For example:

  • Home fire safety checks. Double keying (that is, when staff enter the same information twice) is being eradicated and multiple processes have been automated.
  • Post-incident debriefing. Now the procedure has been digitalised, good practice and learning points are instantly available to service staff via an intranet programme.

Technology transformations are often difficult to achieve. Some staff we spoke to are still adapting to the new ways of working and there are clearly snags that need ironing out. We are interested to review progress in this area in our next inspection.

Other areas where we found the service’s commitment to modern, progressive ways of working include:

  • financial reserves set aside for modernisation, including invest-to-save projects that examine how new apps might save staff time; and
  • an academic partnership with the University of Liverpool to improve front line procedures.

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

The service actively considers opportunities to generate income when they support its goals.

The benefits register of the Blue Light Collaboration Programme Board identifies revenue streams associated with joint venture projects. Much of this income comes from hosting other emergency services. For example, the proposal for a new training and development academy includes an anticipated contribution of £3m from the North West Ambulance Service.

Other income comes from the service’s work with the public sector:

  • last winter (2020), the service partnered with an energy company and Wirral Council on their warm winter campaigns to generate £60,000;
  • a venture with the Merseyside Violence Reduction Partnership, which provides support for domestic abuse victims, secured similar funding; and
  • work with CitySafe, a multi-agency partnership that supports young people who are likely to become involved in anti-social behaviour.