Should your house be on fire and you live in the borders of Berkshire and Oxfordshire, you might have to wait a little longer for the fire brigade to turn up. Their respective control rooms have different ways of classifying addresses, so extra phone calls are needed while they sort out the confusion. Indeed, they may need to phone you back.
However, if you’re lucky enough to set fire to your house in Scotland, the Fire and Rescue Services (FRSs) will be on the road in a flash, armed with complete background, risk analysis information and schematic diagrams on their handsets.
It seems barely credible that England and Wales’s fire and rescue services don’t have a joined up system of communications. Despite around £490m of investment in communications there’s still a worrying lack of standards, leading to information bottlenecks.
The failings of the FiReControl programme, according to The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) were not about the technology, but the execution. This at least offers some hope, because the Airwave digital radio network for England and Wales could yet prove the glue that brings unity to the emergency services.
One analyst, who wishes not to be named, said it was the least the operator could do. ‘Airwave was handed a monopoly so arguably there could have been a cheaper way of doing things. As it was, the rescue services don’t have a choice,’ he said.
FireLink (the programme that provided the fire services with Airwave, the single, unified digital radio platform to replace analogue radio systems) did at least demonstrate how digital wireless could standardise and rationalise costs. For now the range of protocols for data and interfaces remains divisive on some levels. Meanwhile, there’s an argument to be made that the costs of sending data could be rationalised significantly.
TTP (The Technology Partnership) claims it can offer rural wireless broadband at a fraction of the price charged by Airwave – by using the redundant parts of the existing TV broadcasting channel. These ‘white spaces’ would cost next to nothing to create as the infrastructure is already built. ‘There isn’t enough [digital radio] spectrum available for emergency services to support the large amounts of data transfer needed during a major incident anyway,’ says Andrew Fell, project manager at TTP.
Olaf Baars, deputy chief fire officer for Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Services, isn’t confident that any set of universal standards will be created for the FRSs any time soon. ‘Commonality could have been achieved, but it won’t be now. There was plenty of opportunity to work out a basic standard for technical requirements to provide interoperability,’ he says, ‘but the Government has chosen not to.’
One of the more tragic missed opportunities was for fire control rooms to pass data on to each other, argues Baars.
On 1 March 2012, the Government’s fire minister Bob Neill announced funding of £74m to support a range of locally-led projects to improve the resilience and efficiency of local fire and rescue control rooms across England.
The grants are a response to the collapse of the original FiReControl programme to consolidate the current 46 control rooms into nine regional centres. Following the failure of the top down programme, the regions have been given grants to get on with it themselves. Whether that will drive integration is another thing altogether.
‘A lot more than nine interfaces will now need to be built, but at least it won’t be 46,’ says analyst Steve Hoppe, a manager at consultancy and research company Mason.
Given the failure to impose standards and cohesion in the digital radio comms systems through a top down approach, perhaps locally-led initiatives are a more realistic way to ensure that investments actually work.
Baars isn’t confident that will happen. Some of the locally-led initiatives seem to have no logic. The Isle of Wight fire brigade has chosen to form a partnership and pool its purchasing power not with neighbouring Hampshire, but with Surrey, a county it doesn’t share a border with.
The decision is purely a political one. The Isle of Wight authorities are worried they are going to be subsumed into Hampshire. Many of the authorities in conservative heartlands would have resisted the FiRreControl project because it was perceived as part of John Prescott’s plot to regionalise Britain along EC lines, says Baars.
Without standards, a call for reinforcements or information requires a phone call, and a subsequent delay. Baars isn’t confident that the grants of £1.8m to each county will be universally well invested. While five regions in the northwest (Cumbria, Lancashire, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire) are working to achieve interoperability across their borders, others have less ambitious plans for the money.
‘There will be a lot of FRSs that are doing their utmost to do nothing other than upgrade their own technology,’ says Baars.
In contrast, Dave Webb, chief fire and rescue officer at Leicester FRS, seemed quite relaxed about the lack of standards. ‘I would say the system we have got now works very well. Yes, we could get better information on the handsets and our data sets need attention,’ he says, ‘but very few people can say their data sets are perfectly matching.’
With no common standard for data sets, sharing information on the digital radio handsets is not feasible. But Webb says this is not a disaster. ‘We could work around it. We could change our systems architecture rather than have us rethinking the way we create and store data,’ he says.
Airwave’s director of UK services David Sangster says: ‘There are definitely some missed opportunities to use the Airwave Network more extensively from a data perspective. Our network provides a common platform for our customers to interoperate and collaborate, and data can also be sent over the network to provide an efficient means of sharing intelligence such as building and hazard information. For example, Scotland is currently using data to mobilise appliances which reduces costs, provides efficiency of operations and is resilient.’
The level of integration across the fire and rescue services is still disappointingly limited, given the money spent, say analysts. While data sets are yet to be integrated, and the brigades themselves don’t seem to be rushing to standardise, Airwave could provide the basis for unified standards, says Hoppe. ‘They all use Airwave equipment for voice now. They’ll use it for data eventually and it’s their call where that develops,’ he says.
In general, the DGD92 standard governing protocol for control room to station sessions has been accepted by the FRSs. The next big challenge is over the fire service databases and risk information systems. If these could be unified the quality and speed of information pushed out to handsets would improve dramatically.
However, the Government’s insistence on pushing decision making locally makes it more difficult for FRSs to realise the benefits offered by a national, harmonised solution with all the interoperability and efficiency savings that might bring.