How efficient is the fire and rescue service at keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks?
Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency requires improvement.
The service’s budget is set as part of Cornwall Council’s overall budget-setting process. This budget is based on realistic plans. The service uses council reserves for extra activities like those after the Coverack flooding. It has a good record of making savings. It plans more savings by updating its fleet, technology and buildings.
Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service is inconsistent in areas that on-call staff cover. Recruitment and retention of on-call firefighters is difficult. Staff shortages and poorly managed contracts mean it doesn’t always have enough fire engines. Positively, the service has taken steps to address these problems. For example, by a seasonal crewing model in Newquay and a daytime crewing pilot project in Liskeard. But it still doesn’t always have enough resources available.
The service is integrated into the council’s neighbourhood directorate. This means it works on wider community matters. Its control room monitors CCTV as part of the Safer Towns scheme. This brings it income.
The service works closely with other emergency services. The proposed increase in jointly funded tri-service safety officers is positive, with evaluation showing how useful this way of working together can be. But the service could do more to evaluate and achieve benefits like these when working in collaboration.
How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure how it resources services in areas covered by on-call firefighters aligns with risk. This is specifically in relation to risk assessments of premises, home fire safety checks, fire safety inspections and response services.
- The service needs to demonstrate sound financial management of principal non-pay costs. It should ensure it appropriately manages on-call contracts to provide best operational cover.
- The service should ensure there is effective monitoring, review and evaluation of the benefits and outcomes of any initiatives, including 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 is part of the neighbourhood directorate of Cornwall Council. Its integrated risk management plan forms part of a wider plan which covers the council’s strategic themes. The service produces an annual plan which includes general objectives of improving efficiency. Examples include reducing sickness rates, ensuring financial spend against budget, realising savings and greater collaboration.
The service and the council have developed their budget using realistic planning assumptions. These include pay awards, non-pay inflation and expected levels of council tax precept.
We said earlier in the report that the service provides communities with different levels of service depending on whether they are in areas covered by wholetime or on-call stations. In the east of Cornwall the daytime crewing pilot project at Liskeard has sought to tackle this problem. In other parts of Cornwall, the service has introduced the ‘adopt a village’ project. The service expects wholetime staff to provide certain services in areas covered by on-call staff. In addition, the service plans to employ more jointly funded tri-service safety officers and put them in areas where there are gaps in service. However, the inconsistency of the service which it is providing – in the important areas of risk assessments of premises, home fire safety checks, fire safety inspections and response – is a concern which the service needs to address. The service does provide high-risk home fire safety checks within 15 days across the whole of Cornwall.
The service has drawn on council reserves several times in recent years to cover the costs associated with additional operational demand. Last year, the service used £300,000 to meet the additional costs associated with the Coverack flood. This year the service anticipates that it will have to use council reserves to meet a predicted overspend because of increased operational work associated with the hot weather.
Productivity and ways of working
In Cornwall, there are seasonal variations in the number of people visiting and staying in the summer. As a result there is an associated increase in risk. To cope with this risk the service has introduced a different resourcing method between May and September and has changed Newquay fire station from an on-call service to wholetime during the daytime.
We found the service has been innovative in aligning the provision of its services to risk in some areas. The new crewing pattern being trialled at Liskeard uses day- crewed staff for several days each week to improve response and prevention work in remote areas.
We saw evidence of the service deploying wholetime firefighters flexibly. If minimum crewing levels are met, the service moves surplus staff to other wholetime stations to ensure there are sufficient staff to operate fire engines.
The service has recognised that it should do more to improve its evaluation of such projects. We also found evidence that this was the case.
The service finds that the recruitment of on-call firefighters is a continuing problem. There are vacancies at many stations. The service’s analysis indicates that the lack of flexible working adversely affects its ability to attract and retain staff, including those who would make the workforce more representative, for example women. The service uses some on-call staff to provide wholetime cover on a long-term basis. This use of resources can also have an adverse effect on the availability of staff at on-call fire stations.
We found limited co-ordination and management of on-call contracts when on-call staff complete their contracted hours. The expectation is that local managers co-ordinate this. However, we found this is often not the case and fire engines are not available because the firefighters have worked their contracted hours. The service should ensure on-call contracts are appropriately managed to provide the best possible operational cover.
As an integral part of Cornwall Council, the service works closely with the council’s other departments. The integration of the service into the council’s neighbourhood directorate means the service also works on wider community safety matters such as protecting victims of domestic abuse and supporting action to tackle modern day slavery. But the service could do more to identify and monitor the benefits from working in collaboration. We found some good examples of working together, some of which have been evaluated.
The service seeks opportunities to work more closely with other emergency services and is part of a tri-service group to explore options for collaboration. Following discussions with the ambulance service, the fire and rescue service took on a co-responding role, and on-call fire and rescue staff can now attend medical emergencies as first responders.
The service has actively promoted the introduction and extension of the role of tri-service safety officer. An independent review found these officers to be of “significant value to all services and residents”. They help to provide on-call response cover and also wider community safety and prevention services.
We found continuity plans in place across a range of risks including industrial action, power cuts and pandemic flu. There is evidence that the service refreshes these plans every year and has table-top exercises, but we found limited evidence that it has tested the plans.
A formal arrangement is in place with another fire and rescue service to provide call handling and the mobilisation of fire engines should anything happen to Cornwall’s control room, its critical control centre.
How well is the FRS securing an affordable way of managing the risk of fire and other risks now and in the future?
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 is part of Cornwall Council’s budget-setting process. The council’s medium-term financial plan includes a £2.8m efficiency savings target for the service to achieve by 2021/2022. The service has a record of achieving efficiency savings. For example, changes to the provision of services and stations covering the Camborne, Pool, Redruth and Hayle areas achieved savings in excess of £500,000.
The service receives back-office support such as HR, ICT and financial services from the council. These processes are reported to work well, although the service would benefit from looking at the re-charge costs for the functions to ensure that it is achieving value for money.
The service does not have its own reserves. Financial contingency is provided from a £6m reserve held in the council’s neighbourhood directorate, which the service is part of, or from the council’s general reserves. Council reserves were used in the last financial year to meet an overspend associated with the response to the Coverack flood. The service predicts that its council reserves will be needed this year to cover the additional costs associated with responding to incidents caused by the hot weather.
Positively, in light of the use of council reserves and the problems associated with resourcing the service, the council has asked the chief fire officer to review service provision and sustainability to identify options for the future. He has just started this work.
The service works with other emergency services and is part of the Blue Light property integration programme which identifies opportunities for emergency services to share buildings in order to reduce costs. Emergency services share buildings at several locations, including Hayle, Truro and St Columb. The service is also part of a wider emergency services group which covers South West England and explores options for different working arrangements. The service has taken over the responsibility from the police to respond to people who have collapsed behind closed doors to gain entry for the ambulance service. This has reduced attendance times for the ambulance service and allowed firefighters to enter houses and buildings more rapidly using existing skills and equipment.
The recent decision to increase the number of tri-service safety officers from three to ten, with joint funding, is positive and based on an evaluation of the scheme. This is likely to bring benefits in operational response and community prevention, including fire safety, in more remote areas.
We found the service has been innovative in aligning the provision of its services to risk in some areas. For example, the crewing pattern being trialled at Liskeard and the established seasonal crewing model at Newquay.
Future investment and working with others
Staff in the service’s critical control centre also monitor CCTV systems on behalf of some towns and parishes. The service is paid to provide this service, approximately £130,000 each year. Work is now underway to take on more systems with funding support from the council and the local police and crime commissioner.
The service has a formal agreement with the Isles of Scilly to provide some functions including taking emergency calls, mobilising fire engines, fire safety inspections, some training and incident command roles. This agreement is being reviewed.
The service has recently started to explore options for fleet management with other emergency services, to realise more benefit from the facilities in its vehicle workshops.
Cornwall Council uses a long-term operational assets review programme to support the replacement of fleet, technology and buildings. The fire and rescue service is part of this with a current planned spend of £26m over the next 15 years. This process is used to realise efficiencies as well as ensuring that assets can do the job which they are supposed to do. The process is predicting £200,000 revenue savings over the next two years as well as ensuring value for money with capital spending.
The service needs to update its technology, including the MDTs on fire engines. The outdated technology is adversely affecting the mobilisation of fire engines and staff and the sharing of risk information.
The service generates income through a company called Phoenix. Phoenix provides services primarily in the community safety sector. It provides fire warden training for Cornwall Council employees, pre-driving courses for 16 and 17-year olds to support safer driving, and driver training for Cornwall Council employees using the instructors from spare capacity. Phoenix has two full-time employees but will use staff from the service on a cost-recovery basis. The service is currently exploring options of using the company to generate further income.