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21 May 2015, 05:00
The fire service is facing a funding gap of £42.7 million by the end of the decade - equivalent to the cost of over 1,000 firefighters, the public spending watchdog has warned.
The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) achieved £16 million of savings in the first year after the old eight forces merged, with no impact on the public and a continued reduction in casualties, Audit Scotland said.
It is on track to exceed expected savings of £328 million by 2027/28 but future cost pressures and likely reductions in funding will lead to a potential funding gap of £42.7 million in 2019/20, according to auditor estimates.
And the gap could be even higher if other services are protected during the coming period of public sector spending cuts.
Audit Scotland recommends that merging bodies could make savings by reducing staff numbers, rationalising assets, sharing services and streamlining processes.
The majority (70%) of SFRS's £260 million total annual expenditure relates to staff costs, with 4,003 whole time firefighters costing £145 million. The remaining £62 million is split between the 4,483 other SFRS staff.
Audit Scotland has issued a red-light warning on staff attendance, indicating its performance is more than 10% below target.
SFRS slashed its target for firefighter absences from 8.4 shifts to 6.4 shifts in 2014/15, but only achieved 7.1 shifts.
The target for other staff absences was slashed even further from six shifts to 2.6 shifts, but it only achieved 4.5 shifts.
Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland, said: "The creation of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service was well managed. This achievement provides a valuable opportunity to share the lessons of how this was done with other public bodies going through a merger process.
"The service is reviewing how it will work in the future, and there is still a lot of hard work to do. Even without the funding gap identified in our report, a long-term financial strategy would be essential.
"It's now crucial that the service agrees this strategy, and supporting plans, to show how it will close the funding gap and achieve savings by 2019/20 and beyond."
SFRS Chief Officer Alasdair Hay described the report as "very positive", saying "reflects the dedication of all our staff across the country".
He said: "Their efforts have been crucial to successfully bringing together the eight antecedent services while making sure there was no adverse effects on operations or any reduced level of service and I would like to extend my thanks to them all.
"By successfully implementing reform we have been able to improve the level of service delivered in our communities, including providing better access to specialist resources, while avoiding any compulsory redundancies.
"Our priority has been and will always be to protect the public. Of course this means getting the right resources to an emergency whenever and wherever it strikes, but it also involves a huge amount of work to prevent incidents happening in the first place.
"By operating within Scotland’s communities to reach people who may be at increased risk of experiencing a house fire or a road traffic collision, we make emergencies less likely and avert the tragedies that can follow in their wake.
"Going forward, we continue to make the savings asked of us by reform and remain utterly committed to ensuring every community in Scotland benefits from the protection of a truly world class fire and rescue service."
"SFRS has already delivered very significant financial savings since its inception in 2012/13.. These efficiencies will see a reduction to the organisation’s budget of £31.5 million when compared to legacy services, while the cost base has risen by £16.7 million.
"As the Audit Scotland report acknowledges, this has been achieved with no impact on frontline operations or to the public and the services they receive. Indeed SFRS has delivered improvements during this period, including the extension of specialist resources across Scotland, providing a higher number of home fire safety visits than ever before and a continuing reduction in fire fatalities and casualties.
"It is recognised that going forward funding pressures will intensify and work has already been undertaken to project future costs and savings up to 2019/20 across all cost areas. The SFRS will, of course, continue to place community safety and firefighter safety at the forefront of any decisions which are made to ensure that we can continue to deliver the high quality service the public has come to expect from us."