I had a small glimpse into the future last week. Along with colleagues from West Yorkshire Police we visited Merseyside to look at their Joint Control Centre. This is a joint project between the Fire and Police services in Merseyside that brings both control rooms onto one site (currently with a door in between i.e not the same room), but which also provides an excellent joint command facility for major multi-agency events. Also on site are operational planning teams for the two services, and indeed some of the local authorities and the local ambulance service.
This particular project came about as a consequence of a moment in time when, politically and operationally, a chance presented itself that was just too good to miss for our colleagues in Merseyside. I congratulate them for their vision in doing so. Could it happen in West Yorkshire? I think that the answer has to be that given the right circumstances anything is possible, and you can’t fault the business and operational sense in such move. Our team in West Yorkshire Fire Control are still settling into our new facility in Leeds, I don’t want to set hares running and suggest that we may be moving again – far from it, but with all of the ongoing discussions about the future role of the Police and Crime Commissioner, and the undeniable good sense of the Merseyside model, it would be wrong to say never.
Those that know me will know that Fire Control is a part of the FRS that I feel that we hugely undervalue. Any notion that the 999 control rooms are merely providers of call answering and despatch services is both short sighted and failing to recognise the potential that lies within. The ill fated national FiReControl project left a legacy for many of neglect and under investment in this key element of service delivery. Staff and their future prospects were frozen in time, and the market and desire for innovation and development within this sector of operations slowed to a crawl as the spectre of regionalised controls hung in the air. But that is now over, and the opportunity for change and a reprofiling of our Fire Control is with us.
In common with many others, WYFRS has invested significantly in a new Command & Control system, and like many others has done this in collaboration with a neighbouring FRS. The transition from the old to the new is a bumpy journey, as is the case with many (all?) significant projects, especially, dare I say, those with a heavy dependence upon IT. But with hard work by many, and a desire to make it happen, a steady state will be reached. That is the time, in my opinion, to look carefully at how we best make use of this important asset, which for the sake of clarity includes the people and the ‘things’.
Intelligence led mobilising is the obvious low hanging fruit. Whilst already embraced to some extent, the opportunity to design and deliver a new balance between the conflicting need to speedily mobilise resources and to extract ever more information from the potentially distressed caller is something for us to look at. There is a discussion to be had in coming months and years about how we respond to incidents and with what resources. The shift away from the standard ‘big red lorry’ has already begun with the introduction of FRUs (small fire units to those in other FRS) and there may be further opportunity as we look into future ways of responding to a range of incident types. Many may read these comments as some code for something that is measurably ‘less’ in some aspect, that is not necessarily the case – I am talking about a response to incidents that matches the actual risk presented, and takes account of as many of the associated factors as we can readily and speedily capture, before deciding what resources to send to that particular and unique incident. Again, I hear cries that ‘we do that anyway’ but this can be the norm not the exception. I’m also mindful that our Fire Control is a 24 hour presence, 365 days a year and is (broadly speaking) staffed at the same level all the time. Resilience within this setting is important, you can’t ‘make up’ in Fire Control when the calls come in to a large incident, you have to manage with what you have immediately available. Of course there are peaks and troughs to the management of any ordinary day, and any incident too. Ongoing resilience for major and ongoing incidents is manageable given time, but the immediate surge needs people to do what they are good at, and to react to the public and support those crews and officers who are deployed to incidents. I think that there is an opportunity to discuss how we can achieve this and simultaneously enhance the support that Fire Control can provide the service, and look at how we may also deliver something extra in these times of austerity.
The concept of regional and national resilience promised by the FireControl project was not a wholly bad concept, it was however poorly executed. Large incidents either within service or across borders will always require co-ordination and management, including those critical strategic incidents. The mobilisation and receipt of resources to/from other FRS is hellishly complicated without a national call sign plan. The sharing of information and intelligence about dynamic and challenging Counter Terrorism related events requires some co-ordination and the soon to be refreshed National Co-ordination & Advisory Framework (NCAF) document gives a structure around which to do that – the role of the FRS control being fundamental to success. The notion of local expertise and knowledge is still important to me, and whilst technology will play a more important role in the future there are still more pros than cons to retaining that local expertise both in terms of topographical information and FRS capability. Again we must be looking in the not too distant future around achieving efficiencies through improved cross border working, and that will bring increasingly common ways of working. I think that our FIre Control staff do a fantastic job, and are a key part of how we deliver our service to the community.
As the service continues to change and evolve, my challenge as it is to all other staff, is to look at the equipment, systems and skills at their disposal and look for ways to make our service even better. Their role in respect of prevention and wider community safety is ripe for development. The physical security system that keeps many Control rooms (rightly) protected is also an artificial barrier to wider working. I’d like to see more people going through that locked door (both ways) in order to better understand respective roles, and to look for ways to make each other’s day better and more effective. The challenge is there then, the future is bright in my opinion, but the time for evolutionary change is here and we must embrace it.