Continuing with our series about how the Covid-19 pandemic affected fire and rescue services, Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service’s Chief Fire Officer Neil Odin reflects on what makes a good partnership in times of crisis.
The early weeks of 2020 seem a very long time ago now; I think we would all agree that these were calmer waters. I only need to watch a film from pre-Covid days and find myself jolted by the fact that people are close to one another or in crowds.
In late February, I joined a conversation with the Chief Constable and the three directors of public health for Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. We spoke about the seriousness of what seemed to be coming and the leadership required by the Local Resilience Forum (LRF) to get us through it. From this discussion, I was ‘invited’ to chair the Strategic Coordination Group (SCG) for Hampshire and Isle of Wight.
Fire Leadership Role
Many people have asked me why a chief fire officer would chair a Covid-19 SCG. While the obvious leads for this type of emergency would be our directors of public health, they are far too important in their specialist advisory role to the operation of their own local authority to get caught up in the SCG leadership space, particularly when there is more than one of them in an LRF area.
As senior fire leaders, we have agency in convening partner organisations in a crisis. As non-experts we can ask the daft questions, reach an understandable ‘reasonable worst-case scenario’ and co-ordinate a set of agreed strategic objectives, leading to action on the ground.
The role of an SCG is an operational one. It is about response and therefore non-political, as described within the Cabinet Office’s Concept of Operations. Although both EU exit, as well as Covid-19, have an obvious political dimension, a chief fire officer is uniquely protected against this pressure when it arises, allowing us to speak truth to power at the right moments.
It is also fair to say that Fire and Rescue Service leadership is trusted with stakeholders such as MPs, local authority leaders and health colleagues, as the current tensions among partners about local government reorganisation and the long-awaited white paper have comparatively little bearing on us. Through my recent chairing of the challenging EU Exit SCG, I am an experienced chair with the trust of partner agencies.
It is always necessary to consider an escalation option if things do not go well. Here, in Hampshire and Isle of Wight, the Chief Constable is well placed for that function and as chair of the LRF she can continue to provide oversight and context.
The Fog of War
During the early stages of any crisis it can be challenging to gain sound situational awareness. Before Covid-19, I thought I had discovered the real meaning of the ‘fog of war’ during several large critical incidents that I have led, but nothing could have prepared me for this experience. The exhilaration of challenging your own intellectual capabilities, mixed with the fear of the consequences of getting this wrong, created an energy drain like I had never experienced.
“I thought I had discovered the real meaning of the ‘fog of war’ during several large critical incidents that I have led, but nothing could have prepared me for this experience”
The need to reach out to others, connect and coalesce around an issue is a constant during a crisis. The big question all SCG chairs face is: which people to reach out to and how to do it during an outbreak of a contagious virus?
We set up a physical SCG at Hampshire’s Fire/Police Headquarters. Fortuitously, we had invested previously in a solid ICT infrastructure, allowing our early meetings to be physical but safe as well as virtual. Being together in this way led to the development of strong relationships and trust between key organisations.
The Cabinet Office’s Concept of Operations is the starting point for my thinking. This is the tried and tested description of local and central government’s relationship during a critical response phase and yet one that did not withstand the first contact with Covid-19. Despite the testing of a flu-pandemic across our nation, no-one really foresaw the scale of what is happening now and therefore key capabilities and resource levels required for the Concept of Operations to work simply were not in place.
By stating this I make no accusation or assertion of blame; emergency planning and preparedness is challenging to resource. How does the government, or indeed the Fire and Rescue Service, justify its spending and capability against something that has never happened before or happens a lot less than it did? Planning and preparing for the issues described within the national risk register costs public money and depends on a government’s risk appetite.
It is not necessary to explore the impacts of the Concept of Operations here, as that is better described elsewhere. Suffice to say that from SCG structures through to the Prime Minister’s daily news briefing, we have all had to redesign, test and rebuild our multi-agency structures and solutions almost every week to keep our response in the right place.
Based on the agreed reasonable worst-case scenario, many areas – including my own – needed to take action to increase the capacity of certain key operations such as critical care beds, PPE, testing for Covid-19 and mortuary provision. We observed the Italian experience just weeks before us and understood the inevitable impact on society if we did not create the right size of capability for our own area. Acknowledging the balance between building massive capability that is never used versus having a deficit in capacity potentially leading to societal breakdown, key agencies devised and implemented plans using local emergency powers.
Understanding primacy, accountability and responsibility is crucial for leaders in this environment and I have spent countless hours discussing and agreeing with agencies in my area and in government to make sure this was effective during the early Covid-19 response. We see the world through our own lens and creating the time and space to understand other structures and cultures is vital for an effective response.
For example, the NHS is primarily a top-down organisation but has various mechanisms at regional and local level to commission and monitor delivery at a functional level. Knowing who to speak to in the NHS is key to influencing what is happening on the ground. We discovered a few weeks into the response that the testing for Covid-19 and the decisions on building Nightingale hospitals were being led from the centre, although mortuary provision and setting up test sites was a local matter, for us at least.
Last year I was fortunate enough to enrol on the National Leadership Programme (NLP) run by the Cabinet Office. One of the many positive things about the experience was the mission to try to get civil and public servants working as one system for the public good. The contact and insight with key decision makers was so useful and continues to help me make sense of what I am seeing happen around me. As leaders, we will always need to reinvent systems around us to keep up with an ever-changing world; this is never more true than during an evolving incident such as the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The exhilaration of challenging your own intellectual capabilities, mixed with the fear of the consequences of getting this wrong, created an energy drain like I had never experienced”
With the early realisation that the concept of operations would not work for this crisis, I believe the public system should have quickly reinvented, established new ways of working and learnt fast. Simply deciding what was being done nationally and locally would have achieved a huge saving in time and resourcing.
Thankfully though, time has allowed much of this to settle in and be understood and after some consistent lobbying by many, a new set of rules of engagement was developed by Public Health England et al in June 2020. This gave us a clear steer about how outbreaks would be managed locally by upper tier local authorities (UTLAs). The guidance described the relationship with the centre and the SCG structures, recognising the inevitable overlap of some of the functions.
As the Covid-19 crisis developed, the government came under increased pressure from local elected members to have some control over decisions locally and while this does not seem unreasonable, the interface between the local democratic system and SCG response is one that has had to be handled carefully. For some SCG chairs, this transition may be simple as they are operating within one police area and one UTLA, in which case the interface with elected members is something like business as usual, but for those of us that have multiple UTLAs the achievement of a common strategy is a much larger ask.
“The need to reach out to others, connect and coalesce around an issue is a constant during a crisis”
At the time of writing, the UK faces a rapid growth of the predicted second wave of this terrible pandemic virus and the lessons we have learnt across the UK are starting to make a difference. Many chief fire officers are chairing SCGs and LRFs along with colleagues from police and local authorities. My thoughts go to them during this challenging time. These roles are as rewarding as they are challenging, and I know that the Fire and Rescue Service has, and will continue to, demonstrate its ability to be agile in order to protect our communities during times of crisis.