The current political and financial pressures have lead all public bodies throughout the United Kingdom to look closely at how they deliver their services, with the spotlight being on radically changing their approach through innovation and collaboration with a view to combining resources, cutting costs and improving efficiency.
These pressures also very much apply to the three blue light emergency services of fire, police and ambulance who, in any case, have a moral obligation to the general public to provide the best possible service through continued levels of collaboration and interoperability.
From the fire and rescue service perspective, there has always been a keenness to work together, which is evident from the fact that all emergency service workers share a positivity in the face of adversity, support and respect each other and display a “can do” attitude. Regardless of this, the new Policing and Crime Act 2017 places a duty on police, fire and ambulance to consider opportunities to collaborate where it would make at least two of the services more efficient or effective.
So, it is reasonable to assume that any fire and rescue service professional would agree that collaborative working is exactly the right approach, however, in our enthusiasm to recreate ourselves, we should also be mindful of knowing when and where to stop, if only to take stock of our progress before we take the next step.
A perfect example of blue light collaboration, and one that seems to be seen as a quick win across the United Kingdom, is the concept of control rooms where dedicated staff, working 24/7, answer 999 emergency calls and dispatch the relevant resources, as well as dealing with a wide range of other resource management issues.
Collaboration, for the purpose of this article, is seen as joint working in control rooms between the fire, police and ambulance, rather than the joining up of fire and rescue service control rooms. There is clearly the potential for joining up fire and rescue service control rooms, and indeed some fire and rescue services already have, at a local level. The government’s much maligned FiReControl project attempted this by aiming to replace the 46 emergency response centres with nine regional centres equipped with new technology. The project, which began in 2004, was scrapped in 2010 due to a lack of IT and procurement skills after spending £225m.
So, apart from control room collaboration amongst just fire and rescue services which is an article in itself, that leaves fire, police and ambulance services looking to amalgamate their control room functions to various degrees, and in a variety of ways, within each of their respective geographical areas of responsibility.
The traditional approach in the United Kingdom is that fire, police and ambulance have each employed a dedicated control room. In an emergency, a member of the public would call 999 and first speak to an independent and industry funded telephone operator, normally British Telecom, but in any case someone who is not an emergency service worker. That operator would ask which service the person required, but if more than one emergency service is needed the telephone operator may not have the facility to pass the 999 call to more than one service, meaning that service would then have to manually call one or more of the others, or possibly electronically pass an 999 emergency call between themselves. This inability of fire, police and ambulance to view each other’s 999 emergency calls in real time coupled with the need to manually pass calls can result in a time delay for them to attend the incident.
So, the collaborative options for fire, police and ambulance service control rooms, in a logical order, are firstly to combine their location; then adopt the same mobilising system; then finally amalgamate their separate staff groups.
Clearly, in taking this route, there will be barriers to change around funding, cultural differences, different organisational stakeholders, and conflicting legislation but nevertheless, let’s examine these one by one.
All three services operating from a single location, subject to fallback arrangements, within their geographically responsible area, is the first and most obvious step. This is a step that many emergency services have already taken by arranging their 999 emergency call handling and dispatch out of one single building.
Given that each geographical area is likely to have at least one fire, police and ambulance control room means in most areas that’s three into one, although the number of fallback sites may change the overall number of control rooms required. Bearing in mind that it is an easy win for all three services to release unnecessary single estates and instead join up to reduce costs, there are likely to be large savings associated with building maintenance, utilities and of course enhanced resilience amongst the three emergency services, which in smaller geographical areas where there may only be a handful of staff for each emergency service, is a real benefit. So a single location is an eminently sensible first step, and one that is difficult to reasonably argue against.
The second step, once all the three emergency service controls are in the same building, is to use the same mobilising system. There is of course no reason why the same mobilising system cannot be used from different locations, but if we are looking at true collaboration, then using the same mobilising system from the same location would seem the most logical way forward. Such collaboration on both levels has massive advantages such as improved resilience and the ability, under exceptional circumstances, to mobilise each other’s resources. It also seems obvious that there are great financial benefits that can be achieved through economies of scale by three services approaching one single IT provider. In saying that, there are also challenges in aligning existing IT contracts for mobilising systems. It is inevitable that the three services will have different contracts with different providers, lasting for different periods and trying to align the three and making temporary arrangements in the meantime is a real challenge, and one that requires a resolution before any progressive programme for change could be followed.
Furthermore, it is an unfortunate fact that police, and fire and rescue services alike have struggled with large IT projects. Apart from the previously mentioned FiReControl project, in London, the Metropolitan Police was forced to stick with its 30-year-old command and control system, signing a three-year extension after failing to go live with a new system as planned.
Nevertheless, some emergency services have successfully made this step. In Kent, police, and fire and rescue services use a joint communications and control system, while in Merseyside, fire and police services launched a joint command and control centre in 2014. Whereas in North Wales there is a joint police and fire communications centre and a joint £10m fire and ambulance station in Wrexham. In Wiltshire, a tripartite control centre has been created in one building, but there are entirely separate call rooms for fire, ambulance and police based on three separate floors. A similar arrangement exists in Gloucestershire, where the call centres for all three blue light services are in a purpose built facility adjacent to the Gloucestershire Constabulary force headquarters but all three services remain in their individual control rooms. Therefore, there is real evidence of emergency services taking these steps.
We should, though, raise a note of caution for fire and rescue services, which is that in this case, collaboration could turn into absorption and their ability to mobilise their resources could quite easily disappear to another emergency service. Statistics in recent years illustrate that nationally, the police and ambulance service receive approximately 7.6 million and 7.5 million 999 emergency calls a year respectively; they dwarf the fire and rescue service, which average 1.5 million calls a year. So, with the established need for greater interoperability, police or ambulance control rooms, for example, could easily absorb fire and rescue service calls. To underline that point even further, during the industrial action taken by firefighters as part of the pension dispute in 2013 to 2015, there were many examples of 999 emergency calls to the fire and rescue service being easily dealt with by police control rooms across the country. Assuming that the fire and rescue service wants to maintain an influence on the mobilisation of their resources rather than have it dealt with by another service, then this is something to be mindful of.
Then there is the third and final step which is that, once all staff groups are in the same building using the same mobilising system, then what’s to stop their amalgamation so there is a single staff group answering all fire, police and ambulance 999 emergency calls and dispatching the various resources from each respective sources. This step, however, needs very careful consideration from the point of view of when to do it, but more importantly should it ever be done.
Culturally and operationally, there are massive differences between the three emergency services, quite apart from the fundamental differences in terms of one control room needing knowledge of fire and rescue and how to react; anothers in depth knowledge of medical emergencies; and the others knowledge of law and order.
A compromise could, of course, be a split call receiver and dispatcher, which is a common system in many police and ambulance services, rather than in the fire and rescue service where generally the same person that receives the 999 emergency call also dispatches the appropriate resources. In this compromise proposition, there would be a single call receiver for fire, police and ambulance, who would then refer calls to the relevant emergency service dispatch operators who would in turn dispatch resources to the emergency incident. This could, in theory, even include a step away from the BT call handling section of 999 emergency calls.
Without this compromise solution as an answer to full integration, we are instead left with a single staff group answering all fire, police and ambulance 999 emergency calls and dispatching the various resources from each respective sources. This is indeed the most controversial step with emergency services in danger of creating 999 emergency call handlers who are a Jack-of-all-trades and a master-of-none! And that is without the many subsequent ancillary tasks that each service requires of its call handlers. For example, each service needs knowledge of its risks and where best to locate their resources in readiness for 999 calls, as well as the types of resources and equipment that incident commanders may need once an incident is in progress.
Such a move would require a massive cultural shift, and whilst changing operational and cultural approaches is not insurmountable it is, however, a key issue to wrestle with; culture after all eats strategy for breakfast!
So, would it all work and how far should we go? Indeed it can work, but there needs to be a clear plan and all concerned need to be fully aware of the time and effort involved. It is highly likely that there will be an extended period of time before any change of this magnitude would realise any benefits, in terms of financial savings and increased effectiveness. Also, it isn’t actually known for sure what these financial savings would be. They can be assumed, but it is difficult to properly calculate these to determine risk versus benefit. It is broadly the case, though, that any financial savings will be based on three factors: firstly the costs included in provision of the physical estate and associated costs such as maintenance and service charges; the second is the associated technological costs (Computor aided design, data centres etc..) and the third, the cost of staff.
Therefore, serious consideration would need to be given to the challenges in maintaining continued political support for the full duration of such a project as well as effectively engaging staff representative bodies, which is particularly an issue for the fire service in a way it is less so in the ambulance and hardly at all in the police services. Each emergency service in each geographical area would also need to look closely at how ready they were to take these steps, and whilst buildings and systems can combine, is the risk of staff amalgamation worth the benefit?
Finally, careful planning would be a must, specifically around the future strategic direction of the three existing emergency services, ensuring that there is adequate integration with existing business plans and there is no adverse impact on the delivery of established collaborative projects.
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