The emergency services tread a difficult path. On the one hand we strive for continual improvement in a world encircled by an ever-tightening financial belt. On the other, we recognise we are high reliability operators not given the same opportunity to experiment through trial and error that our counterparts in the private sector often benefit from.
I was reminded of this at a conference (EENA – European Emergency Number Association) where a range of the latest advances in command and communication technology were presented. During the first presentation I attended the speaker stood, introduced themselves and then, supported by a slick presentation, highlighted the main competitor to their product. Timed to perfection the slide transitions to an image of a notepad and pencil, and laughter ensues. To the dismay of later presenters, many of whom had planned the same introductory tactic and had not had the time to quickly edit their own presentation, the laughter reduced with each iteration.
I found myself wondering; are we laughing a little less each time because we have seen this before? Or perhaps, is it that while industry representatives continued to support their colleagues by politely maintaining a steady chuckle, it was slowly dawning on the practitioners in the room that this is not a joke and in fact what each of these presenters is saying is true? And this might be the sign of a problem.
Adopting New Technology
The question of when to adopt new technology is not just a financial decision for us. Yes, we must consider if the cost represents value to us and the communities we serve – if there is a tangible benefit to this particular product. However, this rarely influences how much money, and more importantly, time we invest in technology. It usually follows after the decision to invest in technology has already been made, when we are considering if we should purchase product A or product B.
The important question is, when do we decide to look at new technology as a viable solution to one of our problems? Are we constantly horizon scanning for technological solutions or do we wait until something happens that forces our hand? With our well used risk assessment hats on, our default position is often ‘what is the risk of introducing a new technology, how robust or stable is it, and is it better to wait a bit longer and let someone else beta test it?’
“Are we constantly horizon scanning for technological solutions or do we wait until something happens that forces our hand?”
In the wider business sector the question of when to explore or embrace new technology through digital innovation is not a new subject. In an Agenda article supporting the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting (Davos 22) it was noted that ‘the private sector’s digital transformation has clearly outpaced that of the public sector’, in part because we (in the public sector) lack the digital and technological skills to keep up (Neri, 22). Now, perhaps for us that is a little unfair. We probably cannot set our expectations to pace alongside the likes of Tesla or Honda. But, it is not unrealistic or unfair to expect the Fire and Rescue Service to keep a weather eye on what is out there and how we may exploit it. While we are not in the business of producing widgets, we do generate and manage a large volume of data and information that should be used to support effective decision-making, whether this be in a strategic meeting planning next year’s performance indicators or on the fire ground dealing with the very real and urgent challenges right in front of us. To do so, ‘the public sector must rapidly develop the ability to leverage growing volumes of data to add meaningful value’ by adopting technology to suit, developing an agile digital culture within our individual organisations and across the sector, and by developing the skills within our workforce to support this digital transformation (Neri, 22).
Within the UKFRS we have recognised this opportunity to improve; we are not on the back foot quite yet. The recent NFCC-led consultation on a Data Management Fire Standard highlighted the importance of ‘using insights from data, [to make] evidence-based decisions, unlocking improved ways of working’. An effective FRS being one that “establishes and invests in a data capability giving it the right technical skills and expertise, proportionate to the needs of the service” (NFCC, 22). Alongside this, in the UK we are transitioning to a more fit-for-purpose platform to improve reliability and our capacity to communicate and share information at incidents.
The introduction of the National Emergency Services Network (ESN) will allow the emergency services to ‘share vital data, information and expertise quickly and securely from the frontline… access up-to-date products and applications as technology evolves… [and] be able to choose what meets their unique operational requirements from the tools and technologies available’. (Home Office, 2022)
This project is in equal parts timely and beneficial, creating opportunities to address the technological challenges associated with digital transformation. For example, the use of video to improve initial incident planning while en route; remote pre-hospital triage when in attendance; and increased emergency responder safety through the virtual attendance of incident specialists. But, the onus (or burden) falls on individual services to make best use of this new platform, to leverage this opportunity by addressing the other key areas identified, namely to create a culture that supports improvement and a skilled and trained workforce to implement this. On its own, this new platform will not sharpen our pencils or protect our notepads from the rain.
In light of this it seems appropriate to ask ourselves, how many of us (FRSs) have digital innovation roles within our services? How many services have integrated technological solutions within normal operations, such as drone technology, augmented reality enhanced thermal imaging, or video capability at the point of receiving a 999 call? And, how many of us are proactively working with companies to develop and trial new technology designed to meet our needs?
Collaborative Approach to Innovation
A project undertaken by Leeds University Business School reporting on Information and Communication Technologies in the Fire and Rescue Services in England sheds some light on where we find ourselves, and some of the problems we are each, individually and collectively, facing. While a good proportion of this report focuses on the potential benefits of the new ESN within the English FRSs, this is framed for comparison with an overview of where we see ourselves now. The project found that across English FRSs, while many are facing similar issues like the management of legacy systems, there is a mix of systems and infrastructure that hampers the development of a co-operative and collaborative approach to innovation.
Fire and rescue services are placing emphasis on technologies that improve the effectiveness of operational activities, many reporting an expectation that the capture of new forms of data to support incident management would be an area where they would see the greatest change in the next three to five years. For example, while the use of GPS technology to monitor firefighter location is not currently widely used, it was reported to be one area of expected improvement.
Focusing on incident management, our knowledge surrounding and the acceptance of challenges involved in incident command has grown significantly in the last few years. We understand our own limitations as decision-makers in relation to human factors, limited attention spans and information overload to name a few. While this raises pertinent questions like how to develop interfaces between firefighters and technology, the technology beginning to appear on the fireground is often otherwise ubiquitous in our daily lives. We are well used to video calling to improve communication, digital location sharing to improve where we are going and how we get there, and cloud-based management to improve storage and access to information. This is not new or unfamiliar technology. The report also found that a key factor in the successful development and integration of new and emerging technologies was service-level governance, senior management supporting larger ICT projects.
“How many of us have digital innovation roles within our services? How many services have integrated technological solutions within normal operations?”
While the issue of culture is not addressed within the report, this finding highlights the important role senior and strategic management play in establishing both the direction the organisation is heading in and the norms that settle into the service’s culture. This is an important aspect of change, regardless of what needle we are seeking to nudge. And while, especially in the context of operational emergency response, the high-reliability nature of tasks requires a ‘careful and considered approach needed to be taken when implementing technologies that could directly affect the command and control structure of the work of firefighters’, this was not always reflected in organisational practice.
Counter to this sensible and understandable organisational perspective, the inertia created by intentionally thoughtful and slow organisational process can expose unintended consequence. One such example found within the report highlighted that staff often use untested and insecure commercial applications, such as WhatsApp, to communicate with colleagues for work-related purposes.
Embracing New Technology
We are, however, starting to see this technology appear within the sector more and more. The recent purchase of Unblur’s IRIS Core incident command system by London Fire Brigade, a system already used in other FRSs and within the UK Fire Service College, demonstrates the potential of these new technologies to support and integrate within what we already do. The capacity to live stream video footage from firefighters on the ground, to locate them with GPS tracking, and to share critical information between geographically disparate locations is on the one hand ground breaking, and on the other no different to when you last shopped online or scanned your own shopping in a supermarket.
Another key aspect of this system is that it was developed in close partnership between the developer and Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service – an example of the type of partnership that can exist between the public and private sector to lead digital innovation.
“How many of us are proactively working with companies to develop and trial new technology designed to meet our needs?”
While it may appear that I am being a little critical of our current position, this notion underlies the perspective we choose to adopt when considering if and how we begin to see technology as part of our work-based expectations. And criticism need not be our enemy. In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Roberto Verganti introduces the idea of ‘the Art of Criticism’ as a method of approaching improvement within an organisation, rather than a negative seen to stifle innovation. When placed in an environment where individuals are encouraged to consider problems and opportunities in an open forum with a range of their colleagues, criticism is simply the act of refining these ideas into something that can improve how we work or adapt to our changing environment. More than that, they highlight the difference between innovation resulting from improvements (finding better ways to solve the problems we already know about) and new directions (finding new solutions by reconsidering and reframing the problem itself). While this may seem a little abstract, we can consider what this means in the context of one of the current challenges occupying the Fire and Rescue Service. That of how to manage large numbers of calls to a fire control centre and how to share information with firefighters on the ground during a fire in a large or tall building.
Addressed within the Grenfell Phase 1 Report as two separate recommendations:
‘That all fire and rescue services develop policies for handling a large number of FSG calls simultaneously;
That electronic systems be developed to record FSG information in the control room and display it simultaneously at the bridgehead and in any command units.’
In relation to the first recommendation, the nationally led Operation Willow Beck initiative provides a framework to support FRSs where their normal capacity and their contingency capacity through their own ‘buddy arrangements’ is exceeded. As a final line of defence, Operation Willow Beck, when initiated, will see BT filtering calls into the affected control room to divert them to other participating FRS control centres. This allows key information, such as the fire survival guidance strategy set by the incident commander on scene, to be shared with these other services to ensure continuity and timeliness of the information given to callers. The information gleaned from the caller by the other control centre is then returned to the main control centre for processing. This is a good example of innovation through improvement by increasing the system capacity and resilience.
Similar examples of system improvement can be found across FRSs in relation to the second recommendation, how can information be shared between the fire control centre and firefighters on scene? In line with the recommendations’ specific reference to technological solutions, FRSs are exploring the use of Microsoft Teams and other cloud-based services to facilitate live exchange of information. Specific incident management applications, like Iris Core mentioned earlier, have also responded to this need by including shared spreadsheets that can be accessed by multiple users to monitor and update live information. All good examples of system improvement.
“Is it perhaps time we considered the issue of new technologies from a different perspective?”
However, if we are to go one step further and consider a new direction, we need to return to the issue and reframe how we view it. As anyone who has tried to coordinate the repatriation of a passport with its owner (who has only realised they left it at home when they got to the airport) by both dashing to a halfway point from opposite ends of a motorway knows… many of the messaging apps, the informal use of which was highlighted in the state of technology in the Fire Service report, allow sharing of user locations.
If we boil down the key issue at the tall building fire, what we need to do is simply provide the firefighters on the incident ground with a means of locating and communicating with trapped residents. Setting aside resource limitations for a moment, the application of technology we all use on a daily basis could reasonably rationalise the existing multi-step process down to two single points providing instant location mapping and communication between firefighters and those they are charged with helping. Perhaps we are not there yet, but are we exploring the potential use of technology in this way? Should at least one ‘Innovation Officer’ in a FRS be considering this sort of application?
While the Fire and Rescue Service has not come under the direct fire of explicit calls to address a failure of technological foresight, many of our partners including the NHS and the Police Service have. As far back as 2010 the NHS Confederation likened the state of its technology to the ‘pre-industrial handicraft industry’. The NHS has come a long way since then, in part due to their self-awareness and investment in technology. Perhaps it is time we were a little more critical of ourselves. Because if we are not there is a long line of people and organisations standing behind us that may be and should be. The culture we establish in our organisations, supported by national projects and guidance, and a well and appropriately trained workforce will determine how we approach the coming technological shift in our daily work life. This is unavoidable and requires some forethought to ensure that the examples of good practice we see in the UKFRS are capitalised on and shared.
How we choose to engage with this Fourth Industrial Revolution age is going to determine how effective we are at doing our jobs. This is all to say, as practitioners, is it perhaps time we considered the issue of new technologies from a different perspective? Rather than thinking, ‘can we afford to adopt this new technology?’ is there some value (I suggest there is) in thinking, ‘can we afford to NOT use this technology?’.
About the Author
Dr David Holdsworth has been a firefighter for over 20 years, currently serving as an operational Watch Manager in South Wales Fire and Rescue Service. Mixing this practice with a Masters degree in Disaster Management and a PhD in Defence and Security he is interested in understanding and improving how we respond to emergencies.