EXCLUSIVE: Filling the void: where next for fire controls?
Following the cancellation of the Regional Control Centre programme, David Wright looks at what could happen next and opportunities to progress the debate presented by the Fire & Rescue Congress 2011.
For the last 10 years or so fire and rescue services across England, Scotland and Wales have been basing their future strategy for fire and rescue control systems on a central government directive despite (as many people are now saying) the obvious failings in the technology and implementation strategy of the regional solution.
In the end, oblivion for the project came quicker than many suspected it would. Now there is a hiatus as fire and rescue services regroup to take stock of where they were, where they need to get and most difficult of all, how do they get there.
Department of Communities and Local Government Minister, Bob Neill, has in one fell swoop made himself one of the most popular fire ministers of all time [You sure? Ed]. Making a decision that nobody felt really comfortable to make - given the massive amounts of investment that had gone into the technology and infrastructure - he chose what most people would agree to be the correct decision. But, "all glory is fleeting" (as the Romans say) and the Minister's legacy will be determined by what happens in the next two years, as services grapple to find a solution to a problem that was not of their making.
Touching the Void
The key question facing fire and rescue services now it is what happens next. Many services had suspended replacement programmes for creaking mobilising systems which were outdated half a decade ago. Instead, they used string, bailing wire, and the goodwill of staff and suppliers to keep systems alive and running, waiting for the day when the "cut across" to the RCCs took place.
Some services took an alternative view and developed and introduced new systems which were suitable for both current and future use, building in a degree of scalability that would allow services to expand and enlarge in partnership with other services - FRSs or otherwise. These services, subjected to criticism despite replacing systems only to sustain their own services, will now be in a position where they can review the future in relative leisure. The other services, which waited for the promised panacea, and now in a bit of a pickle as they race to fill the void.
One of the first things that must take place before services develop new systems for command, control and communications in the future is that the lessons identified from the RCC project are learned and implemented. Reliance on unproven concepts of operation, unknown technologies using protocols for mobilising call handling across a wide range of different services - each with their own culture, systems, rules of engagement etc - is inherently flawed.
Furthermore, it has been shown time and time again, ICT systems in the private and (most publicly) in the public sector environment, failed to deliver on their original promises and usually at the cost to the taxpayer of hundreds of millions of pounds. Investment in as yet undesigned and untried systems, often developed on a bespoke basis, with unique characteristics particular to the individual organisation, means that the benefits of replication and economy of scale cannot usually be delivered.
The phrase "let's not reinvent the wheel" is spouted with great frequency across the FRSs in the UK: perhaps this time we can really mean what we say and use tried and tested technology that is already delivering for peer organisations and does not require vast investment in new system design.
Politically, central government now appears to have washed its hands of the whole sorry mess. FRSs are now free to organise themselves and deliver their own solutions. It has been said that RCCs have helped to unite the Fire and Rescue Service - staff, managers and their representative bodies - in an almost universal opposition to the programme. Quite neatly, Bob Neill has now handed the challenge to the Service: get the system sorted!
Fire & Rescue Congress
It is with all these considerations in mind that the Fire & Rescue Congress 2011 was organised. With speakers of vast experience of operating at the leading edge of technology and thinking in this field, the Congress is an opportunity for those seeking to find solutions to be shown what does exist and also what the future can hold for their service.
With the Olympics around the corner, there is a need to ensure that service is prepared for the heightened level of risk that will undoubtedly emerge. London Fire Brigade is at the epicentre of this work and they will discuss how the Brigade will be managing fire cover to the Olympics and other major events.
From the basic economics of fire control modelling, through the technology and solutions that are currently available, this Congress promises to be one of the most relevant, challenging and lively in recent years. It will encourage debate among peers with a vested interest in securing the best future for the communities. Knowing what is required and what it needs to do is half the battle: this event will help fill in some of the gaps.
See May issue of FIRE for the full article.
Posted: 15.26pm, 29.03.11
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