Durham and Darlington 2018/19
How efficient is the fire and rescue service at keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks?
An efficient fire and rescue service will manage its budget and spend money properly and appropriately. It will align its resources to its risk. It should try to keep costs down without compromising public safety. Future budgets should be based on robust and realistic assumptions. County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency is good.
The service is good at managing its budgets, investing wisely, making savings and working with its partner organisations. But it could use information better to measure its activities, such as the benefits of collaborations.
The service has made sensible assumptions about savings requirements. It has identified several changes it could make to realise them. It has a good track record of making savings and has saved £3m since its last savings plan. But it isn’t always clear how it aligns resources to risk or its stated priorities.
The service has moved much of its work from central teams to operational crews. This helps it keep costs down and increase the productivity of its operational crews. It frequently uses staff on second contracts to fill vacant shifts. This keeps the staffing structure flexible and provides savings. But the service should monitor the increasing use of this approach, as costs are rising.
Business continuity plans are in place to cover all foreseeable business interruptions, although the service should ensure they are tested regularly.
The service exploits opportunities presented by changes in technology. It has invested in a state-of-the-art training centre and is trialling the Home Office’s new communication system. It is proactive in identifying additional funding sources and has a trading company that it uses to support its revenue budget.
How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?
County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service is good at making best use of resources. But we found the following areas in which it needs to improve:
Areas for improvement
- The service needs to show a clear rationale for the resources allocated between prevention, protection and response activities.
- The service should ensure that it is reviewing, monitoring and evaluating all collaboration activity.
- The service should ensure it has good business continuity arrangements in place that take account of all foreseeable threats and risks. It needs to review and test plans thoroughly.
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 a good grasp of the financial challenges it faces. It has built its plans on sound assumptions and subjects them to external scrutiny. Over recent years, it has developed a good track record of reducing its spending to match available funding. The service’s revenue budget for 2019/20 is £28.4m, which is £3m lower than for 2010.
The service’s 2016/17 to 2018/19 efficiency plan identified £3m savings, although to the service’s credit it managed to save £3.19m. It achieved these savings by making changes to all levels of the organisational structure. For example, it reduced central support teams and passed their work to stations to make better use of firefighter capacity. Information and communications technology (ICT) investments also created some efficiency savings.
The service has reserves in place to manage contingencies over the short and medium term. Data provided by the service shows that as of 31 March 2019, the service has a general reserve of 5 percent of its budget (£1.4m). It also has earmarked reserves of £5.9m. The service has a reserves strategy as part of its medium-term financial plan. To date, the service has never used reserves to balance revenue budgets and has no intention to. The service also has no external debt.
The service couldn’t give a rationale for how it allocated resources to prevention, protection and response and how its financial planning aligns to the priorities in its integrated risk management plan (IRMP). The service must ensure its high-level financial planning addresses the risks and priorities within its IRMP.
Productivity and ways of working
The service has been moving some of the work undertaken by central teams to station-based operational crews since 2010 to make better use of firefighter capacity. It has resulted in a notable increase in productivity levels. For example, the service makes over three times the national rate for safe and well visits and over four times the national rate for fire safety audits.
In 2015, due to financial uncertainty, the service did not fill some of its operational staff vacancies. Instead, it uses existing staff working a second contract to cover vacant shifts. Data provided by the service demonstrates it covered 2,336 shifts this way in the year ending 31 March 2019, at a cost of £495,333. This was about £132,000 less than the amount it would have spent if the vacancies had been filled. However, it is an increase of £158,826 compared with the previous year. Therefore the service needs to ensure that it continues to monitor this approach to ensure its continuing sustainability.
The service has a performance regime that guides organisational activity in important areas. For example, station-based staff have targets in areas such as safe and well and fire safety inspections. They also have targets for incident numbers, relevant to their station areas, to guide prevention activities. District managers actively review and report against these targets. They pass this information to a meeting of senior managers and quarterly to the Fire Authority to scrutinise performance levels.
Staff across several central departments told us that capacity was a problem since the reduction in staff numbers. While staff still meet the principal elements of their role, they feel they struggle to find the time to check and evaluate the effectiveness of
their work. We saw examples of this including:
- inconsistent quality assurance of premises’ risk files;
- many open cases of safe and well files;
- a lack of evaluation of safe and well returns; and
- limited quality assurance within the protection section.
Several of the service’s corporate documents are either missing, contain inaccurate information, or have passed their review dates. This includes strategic documents, policies and procedures. It isn’t always clear therefore how the service meets its main priorities and governs important areas of business.
To respond to the increase in the number of deliberate fires, the service has reinvested some of its savings in a dedicated arson reduction team. This approach should help the service target its prevention resources better and could provide efficiencies through it attending fewer incidents of this type.
The service is discharging its duty to collaborate with other emergency partners. It has several collaborative arrangements in place, although it would benefit from evaluating them more formally.
The service has a governance structure to manage and monitor its collaborative arrangements. It reviews all new opportunities and may choose not to proceed if it doesn’t feel there will be benefits. This is good practice. However, once a collaboration has commenced, we found limited evidence to show any evaluation of benefits achieved.
Examples of collaboration we saw include:
- the service’s Barnard Castle quad station, housing emergency teams from the fire, police and ambulance service as well as mountain rescue;
- tri-service responders who respond to incidents on behalf of the main emergency services in the Stanhope area; and
- sharing sites with the police.
The service sees collaboration as a means to improve future working practices and create efficiencies. It would like to explore more collaboration opportunities with
the police. It is also exploring several opportunities with neighbouring fire and rescue services in the areas of protection, fire control and human resources.
Individual staff have been given responsibility for managing the service’s business continuity arrangements. However, business continuity isn’t included in any of the service’s departmental strategies. Nor does the service give training to managers who have business continuity responsibilities.
The service has plans in place to cover foreseeable interruptions. All plans should be subject to an annual test, although this doesn’t always happen. We found several plans that the service hadn’t tested, including its main business continuity plan. We also found that the service doesn’t always use the learning from a business interruption to mitigate the effect of it happening in other, similar areas of the organisation. The service should make sure it reviews and tests its plans annually in line with stated timescales.
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 has a good track record of achieving savings and has plans in place to meet predicted savings requirements. Its medium-term financial plan runs until 2023, by which time it predicts it will need to save £1.5m from its current budget. It has based this on realistic assumptions. The service has a savings plan that identifies about £2.1m savings that it can implement over the next four years. This prudent model therefore provides some flexibility.
The service has a good understanding of its main financial risks and has made plans to mitigate them, including predicting a potential £4m savings needed for the worst-case scenario.
The service introduced the first part of its current savings plan in April which saw a change to the operational response model. The service has identified several options for changing its operational model over the next three years to meet potential future savings targets and requirements.
The service has realised savings across all areas. For example:
- a review of all non-staff budgets to eliminate non-essential expenditure produced savings of £369,000;
- a reduction in vehicle fleet and changes to the officer car provision saved £194,000; and
- collaborative activity, such as sharing the estate, has saved about £175,000.
The service considers capital expenditure its biggest future challenge. It has plans to rebuild Darlington fire station and after that it only needs to refurbish one more station to complete its estate. The service has invested heavily in modernising its estate in recent years and is now able to reduce running costs to make savings.
The service looks for opportunities to improve how it works. It was an early adopter of mobile working and its crews have access to tablets to support the administration of safe and well visits. But the technology is dated and unreliable and staff find it frustrating. The service has plans in place to update it.
The service is always keen to try new technology or innovate. It is trialling the Home Office’s Emergency Services Network, which it has on five fire engines. It is the first fire service in the country to trial it.
The service invested significantly in a state-of-the-art training centre. It received £600,000 funding from the police innovation fund for this, sharing the incident command suite with the local police force.
The service has earmarked financial reserves for improving ways of working. The service’s ‘modernisation reserve’ has money allocated to replacing one of its fire stations. Another reserve has money allocated to support adopting the government’s new emergency services communication system.
Future investment and working with others
The service will often explore opportunities to work with others to improve ways of working. We saw examples of the service working with:
- a local university to better understand its culture;
- an external company to develop its new appraisal process; and
- a range of partners (through its collaboration arrangements) to improve areas of service provision.
The service has a good track record of securing grants to help fund different areas. One example is building the Barnard Castle quad station for emergency services. The service also receives rent from the partners who share fire service premises.
The service introduced a new policy on 1 April 2019 to charge businesses that have had repeated false alarms, allowing it to reduce the costs associated with a fire engine responding needlessly. Based on previous years’ figures, the service has predicted it could recover nearly £40,000 per annum through this scheme.
The service has established a trading company to provide training and compliance services for private companies. The company has no direct staff or assets. It uses fire service staff and resources and is designed to make the best use of latent capacity. We found there is very little financial risk to the fire service in the way it has set up the company, though it has yet to make a profit. The service also benefits through recharge costs and last year received approximately £100,000. It adds these recharge costs to its central revenue budget to address future savings needs.