How efficient is the fire and rescue service at keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks?
Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency requires improvement.
We are concerned to note that, in the absence of an up-to-date integrated risk management plan (IRMP), Hertfordshire FRS cannot be confident that its plans are supporting its objectives. This is just as much the case in terms of the efficiency of the service, as it is of its effectiveness.
The service has not systematically reviewed how it allocates its resources against risks and therefore cannot be confident that it is using resources in the most efficient manner. There is no clear rationale setting out how and why the service divides its resources between prevention, protection or response activities. It cannot fully substantiate why it bases its response resources on needing 40 fire engines to be available at all times, or whether its target attendance times are the right ones. It also doesn’t evaluate its projects well enough to understand how each is contributing to achieving overall objectives.
The service collaborates with other organisations, primarily with the police and county council, as outlined elsewhere in the report. However, because of delaying the work on its risk management planning, the development of a number of major projects, including extending existing collaborations, has been put on hold. There is evaluation of joint working, but this is inconsistent.
We are satisfied that the service has plans for what it would do if there were to be an event that damaged its core functions – although not in the event of a cyber-attack.
We are concerned, however, that the service cannot demonstrate that it is providing value for money. The true cost of the service is unclear, as many of its back-office functions are provided directly by the county council and are not shown in the service’s budget. The budget allocated to fire and rescue services has been largely protected from the scale of cuts that have affected the rest of the council’s services over recent years.
The service’s inefficient use of technology is a real hindrance to productivity. Its new IRMP will need to include ambitious plans to make sure these problems are addressed.
How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?
Areas for improvement
- The service needs to show a clear rationale for the resources allocated between prevention, protection and response activities. This should be linked to risks and priorities set out in an up-to-date integrated risk management plan.
- The service should ensure that its budget and resource allocation, and management of performance and projects, support the activity set out in an up-to-date integrated risk management plan and strategic priorities.
- The service needs to ensure it effectively evaluates benefits and outcomes of its statutory duty to collaborate. Several collaborations with the police are on hold.
- The service should ensure that its testing and review of business continuity events include cyber-attacks on IT systems.
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
We are concerned that, in the absence of an up-to-date IRMP, Hertfordshire FRS cannot be confident that its plans are supporting its objectives. This is just as much the case in terms of the efficiency of the service, as it is of its effectiveness (see previous section).
It is difficult to compare the total cost of Hertfordshire’s fire and rescue services with others in the country because the budgeted cost may not accurately reflect the true cost of the service. The cost of many back-office functions – including finance, legal, ICT and HR – do not feature in the service’s budget since they are provided directly by the county council. A nominal cost is assigned to the service as an overhead, but the true cost can’t be accurately quantified. However, we are encouraged to note that the reported firefighter cost per person in Hertfordshire is slightly below England as a whole in the 12 months to 31 March 2018. The service has access to the county council’s financial reserves to support both capital and revenue spending. There is also a capital programme for one-off projects and investments which the service can bid for.
The service doesn’t have a standalone financial plan, it forms the greater part of the community protection directorate of the county council. Its annual budget is set by the council and the service is included in the county council’s medium-term financial planning process along with all other council departments. The service monitors day-to-day spending and its senior leadership groupreviews spending against the budget. However, funding for the fire and rescue service only makes up around five percent of the council’s total budget.
There is no clear rationale setting out how resources are allocated to areas of work, or how each area is contributing to achieving overall objectives. For example, in its fire prevention work, Hertfordshire carried out 3,512 home fire safety checks in the 12 months to 31 March 2018. This represents a rate of 3.0 home fire safety checks per 1,000 population which is lower when compared with the England rate of 10.4 per 1,000 population. Of these home fire safety checks 12.6 percent were specifically target at those registered as disabled and 52.1 percent were target at those who are elderly (65+). The service is unable to show that allocating its prevention resources in this way has led to better outcomes or protected those most vulnerable to risk from fires.
Productivity and ways of working
The service is trialling some flexible shift patterns for responding to emergency calls to make better use of a mix of wholetime and on-call firefighters during periods of highest demand for service. However, this is limited in scope and the service has put the development of more ambitious plans on hold awaiting the new IRMP process. If this planning were more advanced, it is possible that the service would currently be running more efficiently.
The service delivers an effective programme of risk-based inspection of non-domestic buildings. It has effective performance management arrangements in place, focused on the quality, rather than the quantity, of these inspections.
We are concerned about the service’s use of technology. Dated and inefficient ICT equipment and systems are currently reducing productivity rather than increasing it. We found this to be a constant source of frustration throughout the organisation. This poor use of technology has a significant effect on the service’s ability to give consistent, timely messages to all staff.
Systems do not connect properly between FRS teams. Staff across the service have difficulties in accessing important systems, including the virtual desktop page that gives access to all FRS systems. The service’s fire control mobilising software collaboration project, which aims to improve resilience and reduce back-office and procurement costs, has missed several deadlines due to technological problems.
The service is taking steps to improve its use of ICT including better management of the outsourced IT support contract. It has also invested in extra staff in its own ICT support team and has developed a detailed project plan to address some of the main areas for improvement (it refers to this as its ‘digital services roadmap’).
However, it has produced this roadmap ahead of developing an overarching ICT strategy to set the vision and direction for the future. Funding for future projects is subject to approval of a capital bid for the 2019/20 financial year and development of a related strategy.
The service has started to show some limited improvements through the ongoing SMART firefighting project, which includes effectiveness and efficiency reviews of FRS operational ways of working and use of equipment. So far this has involved the introduction of some new firefighting equipment and ways of working.
Hertfordshire FRS collaborates with other organisations, particularly the police. There is a police and fire collaboration programme board, made up of senior leaders. In a number of stations blue-light services (fire, ambulance, police) share accommodation. The service has, however, put many additional projects on hold, including those exploring opportunities for closer collaboration with the police.
Further collaboration – such as the development of a multi-agency emergency services training academy – has been delayed pending a decision on the service’s governance arrangements.
The service does not always evaluate the benefits and outcomes of partnership working, and its track record for implementing improvement programmes is inconsistent.
The service has a business continuity policy in place that sets out how it would deal with an event that damaged its core functions. It also has a separate business continuity and recovery plan for the control room.
It has recently reviewed its business continuity plans, and work is in progress to update them. The service has plans to test and review business continuity events, although these do not include cyber-attacks on ICT systems.
How well is the FRS securing an affordable way of managing the risk of fire and other risks now and in the future?
Areas for improvement
- The service needs to ensure its new integrated risk management plan includes ambitious plans to make resources address priorities, and improvements offer value for money. It needs to improve its understanding of the financial challenges ahead, put in place efficient improvement plans, and reallocate resources to changing priorities or risks.
- The service needs to accelerate its plans to improve ICT so that it makes best use of available technology to support operational effectiveness and efficiency.
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
Hertfordshire FRS needs to do more to improve its value for money.
The county council continues to face some financial challenges and is developing plans to deal with its anticipated future budget gaps. It is developing savings plans to meet a projected budget gap of £28m by 2021/22. The service’s share of the council’s planned overall savings is relatively modest, at £0.296m for 2018/19 – 2019/20, reducing to £0.216m for 2020/21 – 2021/22.
The plans comprise small, incremental changes to save money, rather than transformational ones. For example: a continued transfer of some roles from uniformed operational terms and conditions to non-uniformed, the latter being lower in cost; the removal of one risk reduction officer post; and ending some software licenses. This may not be enough to significantly improve the service’s value for money.
The council has protected the service in recent years, making proportionately smaller cuts to its spending than it has to that of other council departments. This means that, while the council has a good track record in achieving efficiency savings, the service has not needed to explore all opportunities to do so.
The service is starting to make some improvements to how it evaluates its community safety work, and these have already paid dividends. For example, it has carried out a joint evaluation with partners of its pilot Boxcleva project, which was used to support a business case with Hertfordshire sports partnership. This helped to secure over £420,000 of external funding to extend the programme.
We are also pleased to see that the service has established a well-developed volunteer scheme. According to data provided by the service, about 90 volunteers throughout the county spend up to 10,000 hours per year doing community safety work. Around 50 percent of all home fire safety checks are carried out by volunteers.
The service plans to invest in building a new headquarters, moving the control room, and redeveloping the Longfield training site. It has put in a bid to the council’s capital programme for £12.5m to fund these projects.
More needs to be done to improve the way the service uses ICT. There is a lack of clarity of the full costs of systems and how they are to be funded; systems are bought and then sit unused. For example, the service bought new tablets to be used on fire engines, which would improve firefighters’ access to mobile data systems, but these have not yet been distributed. The service also purchased a replacement availability system for on-call staff some years ago, yet despite the significant failings of the current system this has still to be implemented.
We did, however, find that senior officers’ ICT equipment is fit for purpose, allowing them to take command during emergencies.
Future investment and working with others
The council’s medium-term financial plan recognises the service will need to change its current approach to risk, and attendance times to incidents, if it is to make major savings. This requires a fully integrated risk management approach. It requires the service to understand current and future risks in the county and set the appropriate attendance times and level of response to meet them. This analysis and understanding would then inform the service’s decisions on the number of fire stations and appliances required, where they are best located and how they are resourced.
However, the service is not planning to do this: its current plan, set out in a report of 11 July, is to agree to maintain existing attendance standards before any work begins on the IRMP process. This may limit its ability to provide the most effective service and make savings.
The service runs Herts Fire Training, which provides health and safety training to organisations in the public, private and third sectors. It also organises tailored team-building and leadership-development days for various organisations. The service runs this external training on a cost-recovery basis with an annual turnover of circa £120,000. There are plans to create a limited company, which would be a subsidiary of the existing council company Surecare Supplies Ltd, but this work is also on hold pending a decision on the future governance of the service.