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Bedfordshire 2018/19


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

Last updated 20/12/2018
Requires improvement

Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency requires improvement.

The service bases its budget on realistic assumptions. But the service has taken limited steps to bring about efficient working practices. Its plans are largely based on what it did previously.

We found a lot of inefficient working practices at stations. These include:

  • duplication;
  • too much bureaucracy; and
  • reliance on paper-based systems.

The service invested in some ICT. But it hasn’t invested as much in improving working practices which are inefficient.

It is continuing to rely on using its financial reserves, alongside its medium-term financial plan and efficiency plans, to ensure sustainability.

The service works well with partner bodies. It intends to collaborate further. But it should do more to evaluate the benefits to make sure it gets as much as it can from collaborating and other initiatives.

The service doesn’t consistently monitor operational staff workload. This differs between stations. Control room costs are high. The service recognises this. It must make sure it uses resources effectively. It uses wholetime staff to fill staffing gaps at other stations. On-call staff aren’t part of this process. The service should review this. The service’s operational equipment is good. Staff appreciate this.

Questions for Efficiency


How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure it is making best use of its transformation reserve to improve how the service works.
  • The service should ensure its workforce’s time is used efficiently and effectively. This relates specifically to the use of wholetime and fire control resources, and the potential use of on-call staff in the strategic reserve system.
  • The service should ensure it effectively monitors, reviews and evaluates the benefits and outcomes of any initiatives. This should include collaboration.

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

How plans support objectives

The service has developed its budget using realistic planning assumptions for pay awards, non-pay inflation and expected levels of council tax precept. In anticipation of austerity measures, it started several years ago to look for cashable savings and has built up a transformation reserve totalling nearly £5m. This reserve is being used to mitigate the effects of budget reductions and is expected to be used entirely by March 2022. The service also has a general reserve.

The service has identified that it should increase its capacity to support organisational and operational improvements. There are plans to make modest investments in both its HR and ICT support by creating one new post in each function. There are a number of areas where the transformation reserve could be used to improve the service rather than simply meet a budget gap. For example, there could be further investment in technology to improve frontline processes, such as the administration of fire prevention activities, to enhance both efficiency and effectiveness.

Budgets are generally set using the previous year as the base, although we found a few examples of zero-based budgeting. We saw evidence of budget scrutiny and challenge, with sizeable savings made as a result. Budgets are devolved to managers, who have some autonomy in reallocating funds within the year to meet local priorities.

Productivity and ways of working

As at 31 March 2018, the service employed the equivalent of 393 full-time equivalent firefighters of whom approximately 30 percent were on-call staff and approximately 70 percent were wholetime staff. The service has one wholetime ‘day crewing’ station. The remaining five wholetime stations are staffed on a shift system: 24 hours on duty followed by three days off. It is the only fire service in England using this working pattern. This shift pattern was introduced in 2010 and enabled the service to remove 24 posts.

The shift pattern has been well received by firefighters as it seeks to improve their work/life balance, providing flexibility for family commitments, and supports their health, safety and wellbeing. It has also resulted in a significant reduction in potential recruitment costs. Although the service has a station audit process, which considers station outputs, we found the levels of activities between stations were inconsistent. As a result, we are not satisfied that the service can show that it monitors and reviews the effectiveness of its workforce.

Working arrangements for on-call staff are subject to a review that began in 2015. While some progress has been made, the introduction of ‘phased alert’ (a system whereby only the required number of staff are called to attend incidents, rather than all who are on call), hasn’t yet been implemented. On-call staff are unclear about the progress of the review and have concerns about how the changes may affect them.

Flexible working arrangements are in place for non-operational staff.

We saw evidence of flexible and resilient deployment; wholetime firefighters are moved between on-call and wholetime crews and stations. This is achieved through a strategic reserve process, which is managed by fire control and borough commanders. On-call staff are not included in the strategic reserve; the service should consider whether their inclusion would improve operational resilience.

In the 12 months to 31 March 2018, as a result of the recent reduction in wholetime firefighter posts, the service had a slightly ‘top-heavy’ management structure compared with other services: 10 percent of wholetime firefighters are at station manager level or above, compared with 9 percent nationally. The firefighter cost per head of population in the 12 months to 31 March 2018 is also slightly higher when compared with other services. The service recognises the need to make better use of fire control resources.


We saw many positive examples of the service working constructively with partner organisations and other agencies. These include sharing premises with police and ambulance services; joint procurement; and some joint provision of services, such as the Fire and Rescue Indemnity Company.

A shared ICT service with Cambridgeshire FRS is well established but limited in scope. It offers the potential for further collaboration to improve efficiencies and resilience. We saw more examples of the service working closely with others. They include ‘ride along’ schemes with other blue-light services, and work with licensing and housing authorities on rogue landlords and licensed premises.

However, such initiatives have been largely uncoordinated and lack thorough evaluation. Aside from some cost savings on premises and procurement, benefits aren’t always considered or realised. Continuing initiatives haven’t generally been systematically reviewed or evaluated.

Nevertheless, there is clearly an intent to do more in this area, especially with Bedfordshire Police. We welcome the recent introduction of the blue light collaboration board, a group set up to better coordinate the benefits achieved through collaboration.

Continuity arrangements

In conjunction with Essex FRS, business continuity arrangements are in place for the control room, telephone network, and wider area networks. We were told of some testing of these arrangements in fire control. However, the business continuity plan does not specify a testing and exercising regime, or timescales for review of the plan.

The service has an established ICT shared service with Cambridgeshire FRS. This ensures back-up arrangements exist at different locations to mitigate the threat of cyber-attack.


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

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service needs to secure an affordable way of managing the risk of fire and other risks now and in future. Its future budget gap is increasing, but it has no plans to address and reduce it other than to use reserves. This is not sustainable.
  • The service needs to make better use of technology to improve bureaucratic frontline working practices that rely on paper-based processes.

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

Improving value for money

The service has made realistic assumptions about its future income and costs. It has a saving and efficiency plan to 2021/22. Budgets have been subjected to scrutiny over a number of years, with substantial savings identified and placed in reserve. We didn’t find evidence of a systematic review of service provision. Savings have been achieved by identifying opportunities to carry over underspends, rather than by the service examining the way it functions.

Although this approach has enabled the service to accumulate savings into a transformation reserve, it hasn’t addressed the underlying budget gap. This gap is increasing every year and is expected to reach £1m by 2022. The service should make robust future plans to meet its forecasted gap past 2022.

Non-pay costs are actively managed; we found examples of joint procurement and the use of framework agreements. We found the service to be well equipped; vehicles and other equipment and buildings are in reasonable condition. However, aside from the investment in central ICT infrastructure, there is evidence of widespread inefficient working practices in stations. Throughout the service, we found evidence of duplication, excessive bureaucracy and burdensome paper-based systems. It is clear that administrative and approval processes aren’t subject to scrutiny or process improvement; this is needed if the service is to operate more efficiently and make the required savings.


While the service has some innovative practices, there remains scope for innovation in some areas. Plans are largely based on what was done previously, with some marginal changes. There are strategies for managing the fleet and estate, but these essentially maintain the status quo.

Although the overarching CRMP links together strategies with individual station plans, it fails to identify better ways of achieving the service’s objectives. There is little challenge to the established ways of doing things; we found no evidence of an approach based on benefits, or of effective evaluation of investments.

The service is a member of the Fire and Rescue Indemnity Company (FRIC). This company provides indemnity against risk normally covered by larger insurance premiums. In addition to making financial savings, the nine member FRSs work together to reduce risk and share best practice. We view this as a positive way to spread the risk and cost of mitigating claims across a number of fire and rescue services.

Technology is the service’s biggest area of inefficiency. We consistently found staff expressing dissatisfaction about the lack of ICT provision to support their day-to-day activities, such as attending incidents, safe and well visits, and audits. We found systems used by staff to be cumbersome and unreliable; often paper-based and with layers of duplication and bureaucracy. Despite plans to provide staff with mobile data tablets and replace some existing MDTs, more change is needed to improve cost-effectiveness. The service is reviewing its processes and a number of projects are underway. However, the service recognises that more must be done to improve the way its front line and administrative staff work.

Future investment and working with others

The service told us that in addition to its transformation reserve of £5m, there is a general reserve of £2.6m. There is a further £6m of earmarked reserves, which the service intends to use for capital expenditure and to cover a variety of risks.

The service isn’t using its transformation reserve to transform, but to meet an increasing budget gap. It should consider how to use this reserve more effectively.

We think it could be invested both in a rigorous operational review and in digital technology, to improve efficiency.

The service receives some income, although this is mainly through payments received from supporting other fire and rescue services, rental income, and payments associated with shared premises. The service has taken up some opportunities for additional funding through grants: a transformation grant from the Fire and Rescue Indemnity Company; and for its work with Bedfordshire Police.

The service’s current arrangements for joint working aren’t central to its work. They focus on sharing premises, better relationships and information exchange, rather than on collaborative work. Nevertheless, we were pleased to see it starting to collaborate more strategically, especially with Bedfordshire Police. Recently, a joint workshop with staff from both organisations identified more ways in which they can work together.