Information and Communication Technologies in the Fire and Rescue Services in England

Back of a fire engine with ladders

Postgraduate students

Daniel Pugh

Description

At a time when England’s Fire and Rescue Services are facing cuts in funding, and simultaneously undergoing nation-wide ICT infrastructure changes, it is vital that the government is provided with a clear picture of the current state of technology in the Fire and Rescue Services and its associated governing structures, as well as recommendations for how ICT infrastructure and governance can be improved as part of the major ICT systems transition set to take place over the next three-to-five years.

To understand this, Professor Allen and colleagues surveyed 40 Fire and Rescue Services and interviewed 22 Fire and Rescue Services staff (IT managers; operational officers with responsibility for ICT; ICT and business change programme leaders) about:

  1. the current and future state of technology in the Fire and Rescue Services;
  2. governance structures in the Fire and Rescue Services;
  3. ICT capacity in the Fire and Rescue Services; and
  4. their motivations for and concerns about engaging with the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (a Home Office led programme set up to develop and deliver new emergency services communications services).

Key findings

Our findings suggest:

  1. The condition of Fire and Rescue Services ICT infrastructure differs greatly across England with a number of services facing significant ICT challenges.
  2. The governance of Fire and Rescue Services has a significant influence on their capability to engage with, or implement, complex and large-scale ICT projects while maintaining existing systems.
  3. The fluidity and diversity of collaborative relationships between Fire and Rescue Services is leading to inefficiencies and will inevitably lead to less effective use of resource. This negatively influences the delivery of a national programme for ICT or national infrastructure.

Findings from the Fire and Rescue Services survey included:

Dispatching and GPS locating

Effective dispatching of resources and management of the workforce are important areas for any public sector agency that deploys first responders. Modern Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) systems are a complex and important part of the Fire and Rescue Services infrastructure which provide a variety of functions. CAD technology was described, in the majority of services (74%), as ‘up to date’ with a further 14% noting that this technology was ‘old but serviceable’.

Yet in contrast to this, only 5% of Fire and Rescue Services use GPS for locating ‘fireground’ firefighters, and 10% use GPS for locating ‘on-call’ firefighters.

When examining alternative approaches to location services for the management of resources, 93% of services rated Automatic Vehicle Location technologies as ‘up to date’ and when extending the question to other responses, the survey suggests that all but one service utilises AVL technologies. This suggests a focus on the vehicle and the team rather than the individual when responding to an incident.

Messaging and internal/partner communications

When asked about data on the fireground, ‘Incident Messaging’ and ‘Status Messaging’ contained the highest responses for condition of technology with 64% and 69% responding ‘up to date’. These two technologies also contained the highest priority, with 59% services responding ‘high or very high’ for both.

Only 31% thought the condition of technologies to enable communication with partners (eg Police, Public Health) through data was up-to-date.

We noted widespread use of social media tools for internal communication: 76% used Instant Messaging Service (eg WhatsApp) often or very often for internal communication and 31% used file sharing services (eg Dropbox) often or very often.

External communications

Only 26% felt IP communications (eg text, audio, video) for emergency calls from citizens was up-to-date, with 67% expecting to see significant change to this technology within the Fire and Rescue Services in the next 3 – 5 years.

Only 7% felt virtual call centres (eg call centres with cloud based infrastructure) were up to date.

Twitter was the most commonly used social media platform Fire and Rescue Services used to communicate with the public, with 88% of responses stating Twitter was used often or very often in this way. This was followed by Facebook (81%), YouTube (44%), Instagram (34%), Flickr (10%) and Snapchat (5%).

26% felt IP communications (eg text, audio, video) for emergency calls from citizens was up-to-date, with 67% expecting to see significant change to this technology within the Fire and Rescue Services in the next 3 – 5 years.

Control Centres

Just over half of Fire and Rescue Services (51%) indicated that they had Shared Control Centres (with more than one Fire and Rescue Service or with other emergency services), all of whom indicated that they were ‘up to date’. In the majority of cases where services had Shared Control Centres these were with other Fire and Rescue Services (46%). In 5% of cases these were shared with the Police.

Data Capture

Given the expanded use of Person Mounted Cameras in other emergency services, such as Body Worn Video (BWV) in policing, only 19% felt this technology was up-to-date. However, this is an area of development as 76% of Fire and Rescue Services responded that they saw ‘significant and transformative’ change in this area.

83% felt technologies involved in the remote recording of data; data governance; and in-vehicle mobile data terminals were ICT priority areas.

Interviews with 22 Fire and Rescue Services staff also revealed:

  • Most respondents indicated that they were unclear how existing services and applications could migrate from their existing 4G services to newer platforms, such as the government’s new Emergency Services Network (ESN) critical communications system. They also didn’t yet understand what value or capabilities of such a proposed system could deliver to them. Indeed, ESN was characterised by respondents as being particularly ambiguous. This was, in part, linked to a perceived lack of information.
  • Interviewees noted the very significant increase in costs for the devices, voice and data services which they indicated had more than doubled.
  • A number of respondents expressed the view that the existing technology was limited but sufficient for their current needs, affordable and easily maintained.

Overall, the nature of the Fire and Rescue Services ICT landscape in terms of ICT capacity, ICT capability, condition of ICT infrastructure and priorities indicates that any support provided needs to be on service by service basis. The findings, do, however, also identify common areas where coordinated activities may be particularly helpful.

Publications and outputs

Note: Previous research conducted by Professor Allen and colleagues analysed in a similar way the ICT infrastructure of the police force, and comparisons are made between the police and fire and rescue services throughout the project report.