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Oxfordshire 2021/22

Efficiency

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

Last updated 27/07/2022
Good

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

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

Oxfordshire County Council still considers the service to be a high priority and supports it in its medium and longer-term financial planning. Funding is stable and the service has made reasonable savings to improve service to the public. It knows it still has buildings within its estate which need to be improved.

Where possible, the service continues to work with other organisations to procure equipment to make sure the Thames Valley’s response to emergency incidents is consistent. But the service could use what it learns from this to improve its approach to working with other emergency services and to make sure it has the most effective possible arrangements with Thames Valley Fire Control, which is the control room for all of the Thames Valley fire services.

The service has addressed the area for improvement to prevent data loss or corruption that we highlighted in our 2019 inspection and has introduced new databases for recording prevention and protection information.

The service has improved its access to IT and systems. Staff have access to laptops and mobile tablets to support more flexible working arrangements.

Questions for Efficiency

1

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

Good

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

Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service was good 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 2020/21 is £23.2m. This is a 1.7 percent increase on the previous financial year.

Areas for improvement

  • The service should have effective measures in place to assure itself that its workforce is productive and that their time is used as efficiently and effectively as possible to meet the priorities in the CRMP.
  • The service should make sure it continually and effectively monitors, reviews and evaluates the benefits and outcomes of all its collaboration activity.

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 financial plans support its objectives

The service is part of Oxfordshire County Council’s Communities Services Directorate. Its financial and workforce plans, including allocating staff to prevention, protection, and response, continue to reflect and are consistent with the risks and priorities identified in the CRMP.

The service’s protection team is well resourced, and the financial plans make sure that the number of qualified staff available for this important function will remain stable. The service’s response to its CRMP consultation shows it plans to use its operational staff more in its local prevention and protection activities.

Plans are built on sound scenarios. They help make sure the service is sustainable and are underpinned by financial controls that reduce the risk of misusing public money. The county council continues to support the service in its medium and longer-term financial planning. It has set aside funding to cover any possible future financial increases, including for potential pay rises of up to 2.5 percent and inflation of contracts by up to 4 percent.

The service is improving productivity and ways of working

We are pleased to see that the service’s arrangements for managing organisational performance clearly link resource use to the CRMP and service’s most important and long-term aims.

An annual review of the risks that the service faces, as well as regular departmental performance reviews, and performance management meetings which are attended by members of the senior management team, make sure the service is achieving expected targets. They also support it to increase productivity. Station and department plans align to the new CRMP. Staff were aware of their station or department’s recent performance figures.

The service had to adapt its working practices because of the pandemic, and these are still part of its day-to-day activity. They include flexible working from home arrangements, combined with hot-desking for managers and support staff where possible. The service has embraced technological advances, giving staff equipment to work from home. It has trained all staff in the use of new laptops, including the use of video calls and mobile working devices.

However, at the time of the inspection, the service’s arrangements for managing individual performance were yet to be fully introduced, and didn’t yet clearly link to the CRMP and the service’s most important aims. Systems and processes can be complex and don’t make it easy for the service to make sure that staff are being as productive as they can be at work.

The service also uses a large amount of overtime to increase the availability of its on‑call fire engines and to make additional training courses available to staff through its training department. The service should consider whether its current arrangements are appropriate. And it should consider whether it fully understands costs, benefits, and risks of using such high levels of overtime.

Collaboration continues to be a priority for the service

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 led the Oxfordshire County Council’s response to the Afghan repatriation crisis and supported South Central Ambulance Service with emergency response drivers throughout the pandemic.

Collaborative work is aligned to the priorities in the service’s CRMP. The service is due to buy breathing apparatus jointly with the Thames Valley services in 2022/23. It continues to review its fleet and to buy new fire engines through a joint Thames Valley procurement contract. This contract supports the service’s work with other Thames Valley fire services when responding across the service’s borders.

We are satisfied that the service monitors, reviews and evaluates the benefits and results of most of its collaborations. But its reviews and evaluations could be more consistently used to learn from or to reassess earlier decisions.

The service shares Thames Valley Fire Control with the two other Thames Valley services, and in emergencies this approach continues to mobilise resources effectively across all three services. However, there are missed opportunities for more aligned approaches in response to incidents, as well as more effective sharing of information. Oxfordshire FRS could also offer further support to Thames Valley Fire Control when control has a staffing shortage.

Continuity arrangements are robust

We are encouraged to see the improvements the service has made since the last inspection when we noted that the prevention and protection databases were at risk of data loss or corruption. The service has installed new secure systems.

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. The service reviewed its procedures due to the pandemic. It has a rigorous plan if staffing levels drop significantly. It will exercise this in anticipation of widespread flooding preventing on-call staff reaching its stations.

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, an external review of the service notes that it manages costs well and has the scope to improve its efficiency through its staff and estate.

The service has made savings and efficiencies, which have caused minimal disruption to its operational performance and the service it provides to the public. The service reviewed its roving fire engine, which was intended to be deployed across the county to fill any gaps during daytime hours. By doing this, it made efficiency savings of £90,000, which it will continue to save year on year. Budget managers complete mid‑year reviews to predict underspend and to identify areas to make further reasonable in-year savings.

The service is taking steps to make sure important areas, including estates, fleet, and procurement, are well placed to achieve efficiency gains through sound financial management and best working practices. The service’s fleet is monitored, and any under-use identified, meaning vehicles can be relocated to make better use of them.

2

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

Good

Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service is good at making the service affordable now and in the future.

Oxfordshire 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 assure itself that it is maximising opportunities to improve workforce productivity and develop future capacity through use of innovation, including the use of technologies.

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

The service is improving value for money

As part of the Communities Services Directorate within Oxfordshire County Council, the service has a sound understanding of future financial challenges. It plans to mitigate its main or significant financial risks. For example, it makes the most of the council tax precept to support the funding of the service. It can also show a balanced budget over the medium term.

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 assumptions for increases in pay, inflation and funding changes. These continue to be subject to informed challenges by the council.

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. It has worked with an external company and other fire and rescue services to identify where it can improve value for money. Oxfordshire County Council expects the service to make modest year-on-year savings. It has a track record of making savings and avoiding residual budget gaps. It also has plans to be able to make savings of £395,000 by 2027.

The service has clear arrangements for the use of reserves

Reserves are held by Oxfordshire County Council. There is a robust process for the service to access reserves if they are needed.

The service has ambitious plans for its fleet and estates

The service and Oxfordshire County Council are aware that the service’s estate is still in need of improvements. The current estate plan will come to an end in 2022 and the service is working closely with the council to consider future opportunities for change. Without new capital investment the service is unable to make the improvements required.

The service’s fleet is regularly monitored and reviewed for efficiency. The service is ambitious in its plans to make the fleet more ecologically friendly and is trialling the use of hydrogen, electric and biofuel vehicles. The service actively considers future changes to fleet and estates. It is exploring ways to incorporate other blue light organisations, as well as potential changes to its risk and response model.

The service is using technology to improve efficiency

We are encouraged to see the improvements the service has made since the last inspection. The development of its prevention and protection software has reduced the risk of data loss or corruption. Staff can now input directly to systems via mobile tablets, which has improved efficiency.

The service considers how changes in technology and future innovation may affect risk. It is trialling a new approach to attract and encourage the recruitment of on‑call staff where it offers its fire stations as a space for primary employment. This could increase the numbers of available appliances and reduce response times. We look forward to seeing the effect these changes have on the service and the communities it serves.

However, we found some of the service’s IT systems and processes to be complex which has, at times, resulted in duplication of effort by staff. The service has to make a bid to the county council for funding to change its IT systems. But it has missed opportunities for service departments to make joint bids to integrate their systems. The service should look to exploit all opportunities presented by changes in technology to improve efficiency and effectiveness throughout its teams.

The service has put in place the capacity and capability needed to achieve long-term change, and it routinely seeks opportunities to work with others to improve efficiency and give better services in the future.

The service recently commissioned external companies to help review its response model and leadership succession plans. This will allow the service to adapt and respond to future changes in risk with the necessary skills, knowledge, and capability. It has adapted its recruitment profiles to include skills such as using social media to support its work in the community.

The service takes advantage of opportunities to secure external funding

Where appropriate, Oxfordshire FRS has secured external funding to invest in improvements to the service provided to the public. This includes securing £200,000 of funding to run road safety schemes throughout the county on behalf of the council and supplying fire safety training for other county council departments on a cost-recovery basis, and only when it has the capacity to do this.

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