Wireless-British APCO Seminar: Enhancing inter-agency responses to major incidents

Wireless got together with British APCO and a panel of experts to discuss how Category 1 and 2 responders can work better together when dealing with serious emergencies

Wireless-British APCO Seminar: Enhancing inter-agency responses to major incidents

Introduction to Seminar

The UK Civil Contingencies Act 2004 places legal obligations for increased co-operation and information between Category 1 and Category 2 responders. Wireless magazine got together with British APCO to put on a one-day open-forum seminar, featuring panel discussions between Category 1 and Category 2 responders. The aim was to begin the task of identifying the requirements needed to further better co-operation for incident response across the various stakeholder organisations. Discussions used two invented incident scenarios as the basis for exploring these issues.



At 9.07am a passenger train carrying approx. 300 passengers collided with a freight tanker that was carrying a hazardous substance. The collision took place at a junction on a bridge across a major highway and the hazardous waste is contaminating the immediate environment and waterways/drainage systems.


  • Sue Lampard, VP British APCO and Superintendent, Head of Operational Communications (Response Command) Surrey Police


  • Fire: Olaf Baars, deputy chief fire officer, Royal Berkshire Fire & Rescue Service
  • Police: PC David Simpson, Metropolitan Police, Operations Support Office for CCC (Central Communications Command)
  • Ambulance: Garry Phillips, business change manager, ESMCP (Emergency Service Mobile Communications Programme | Ambulance Radio Programme)
  • Local Authority: Aaron Goddard, emergency planning officer, Northamptonshire CC
  • Environment Agency: Karen Hetherington, communications manager for SE Region
  • Network Rail: Chris Keylock, security & emergency planning specialist

In this scenario, the emergency services would clearly be the lead responders. The discussion began by looking at the priorities for each organisation.

For the three emergency services the priority is to save lives, with the police co-ordinating the response. David Simpson said: ‘We’d start the co-ordination between organisations, dispatch staff to the scene and preserve it; collect evidence and start the family liaison process. Messages in relation to an incident of this scale would get passed to the majority of our partner organisations. For safety reasons all messages in relation to track safety at the scene, for example line power-offs, would be passed through a single position in our control room to the Network Rail control room.’

Speaking for the fire service, Olaf Baars said: ‘Access to railways is often difficult, so we’d expect a lot of calls from fire staff looking for ways in. Once on the scene we would gather information in as logical a way as possible on casualties, access, the location, and preserve the scene for later study and investigation.’

Garry Phillips said that for the ambulance service, knowing the type and size of the incident is of utmost importance in helping it to mobilise the right response. 

‘Initial information is a priority, as it might be a major incident but one without casualties. We are interested in the number of casualties at first. At an early stage we’d be trying to ascertain whether it is a major incident or not and what type of incident it is. If it is a hazardous one, we’d need to know what we are dealing with. In London, we can send messages directly to the Met Police via a CAD link, but mostly we work on the phone and we do not use the Airwave radios much to contact other agencies from the control room.’

What became quickly apparent is that there is no easy way to send data between the emergency services as yet, let alone to and between Category 2 responders, but that it is very important to build a common picture as quickly as possible between all the responders when dealing with major incidents. 

Network Rail will be a key player in the response by providing the emergency services with situational awareness and information on access. Chris Keylock said that Network Rail has well-developed protocols for dealing with access to the railway for the emergency services and for dealing with hazardous incidents.

Granting access to the rail line is critical. ‘Overhead lines and the third rail may be switched off, but diesel trains can still operate,’ said Keylock. ‘Also there is still 15,000v of residual current running through. We’d need to send a crew to do an earth bond. A rail incident officer will also be deployed to the scene.’

He went on to say that Network Rail’s control centre would know what the train was carrying, what the hazardous chemical was, and where it was situated on the train. 

The Environment Agency’s (EA) first task is to gather as much information as possible as part of its own operational response and for sharing with other agencies, check what the hazardous chemical is and then contact water companies and local landowners. 

‘Contextual intelligence is what the other agencies need, so we try to keep our databases up to date at the EA. We transfer what we think they immediately need, but sending that information over the airwaves just doesn’t work at the moment. We do rely heavily on mobile phones to communicate and you can take a dedicated preloaded laptop, plus a tablet to the scene to show people,’ said the EA’s Karen Hetherington.

Aaron Goddard said that the local authorities would get involved in helping with local access and egress from the scene. ‘If it is a full-scale containment incident then that’s a huge issue for us. We have to work with the EA to understand the threat profile, which will include, for example, understanding dilution in watercourses, then working with the EA to manage the response.’ 

The local authorities will also be needed to shelter uninjured passengers from the train and co-ordinate the evacuation of local inhabitants and find them accommodation if the chemical hazard presented a threat.

How could interoperability between agencies be improved; can technology help?

The Category 2 responders revealed that they rely heavily on guidance from the emergency services – mostly the police in this instance – but they are largely dependent on fixed or mobile phones for communication. Transferring data was seen as much more of a headache, as few of the agencies have common databases or easy access to each others’ databases.

Several panellists pointed out that data can be a two-edged sword in that too much of it can be overwhelming. This can impact on the incident commander’s ability to sift through the mass of data to find the vital information needed to make key decisions early in the response.

Phillips pointed out that one of the biggest problems in improving a co-ordinated response across agencies is that the three emergency services are on the scene very quickly, but getting the other agencies there takes longer. Their information can therefore be slow to get hold of, especially if it is being communicated by telephone via a single point of contact and all of the agencies are seeking information at the same time.

Dealing with the public

The police were seen as the lead for communicating information to the public in this incident, while the train operators would also pass on information to rail passengers. 

However, the EA’s Hetherington highlighted the difference smartphones and social media are now making. ‘We deal with the police, but people want information now. We can use social media to warn and inform, to get information out on floodings and how to deal with it. We can help people take responsibility for their own property.’

Responding to a question from the audience as to whether there was an accessible register of capabilities and specialist skills across agencies, the answer would appear to be no. There is some sharing of resource information at local level, but little in the way of accessible national databases.



An explosion at a reservoir dam has caused large-scale flooding of approximately 30 square miles encompassing a town of 200,000 residents. The flood has disabled a power station and there is a blackout in a 35-mile radius of the power station, including the town.


  • Sue Lampard, VP British APCO and superintendent, head of operational communications (Response Command) Surrey Police


  • National Grid: Jeremy Reynolds, crisis response manager
  • Local Authority: Mark Twomey, deputy head of emergency management, Chief Executive’s Office, Surrey County Council
  • Environment Agency: Karen Hetherington, communications manager for SE Region
  • Cabinet Office: Charles Raynor, HITS project co-ordinator, Resilient Telecommunications, Civil Contingencies Secretariat
  • Fire: Olaf Baars, deputy chief fire officer, Royal Berkshire Fire & Rescue Service
  • Police: PC David Simpson, Metropolitan Police, Operations Support Office for Central Communications Command
  • Ambulance: Garry Phillips, business change manager, ESMCP (Emergency Service Mobile Communications Programme | Ambulance Radio Programme)

In this scenario the Category 2 responders would be more heavily involved, although the emergency services would still co-ordinate and play a major part in the response.

Jeremy Reynolds said that the National Grid is part of the Energy Emergency Executive Committee, which works on planning and has a Joint Response Team that provides the interface between industry and government in the event of threats to gas and electricity supply.

‘We would have had a lot of talks with the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the industry regulator Ofgem and the Health & Safety Executive (HSE),’ said Reynolds.He said that the National Grid has redundancy built in. ‘Our system is designed to re-route the power, so although the situation is serious, hopefully a power failure could be avoided even if the substation was flooded.’

Charles Raynor from the Cabinet Office said that the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) co-ordinates the national risk assessment, which identifies and assesses the most significant civil emergency risks. This is used to inform contingency planning and emergency preparedness. The CCS also works closely with other Government departments to produce sector resilience plans for specific areas of national infrastructure. 

He highlighted the National Resilience Extranet (NRE) as a key source of information for responders, including reservoir inundation mapping. He added that if fixed and mobile communications are down then responders can use the High Integrity Telecommunications System (HITS).

HITS is a secure, resilient satellite-based communications system capable of delivering secure data and telecommunications independently of the main UK telephone networks. It provides fixed and mobile terminals and up to 10 telephones and laptops at 47 sites (mostly police headquarters). It is always available and free to use.

Mark Twomey at Surrey County Council said: ‘From the local authority point of view we’d look at road mapping and local area flood plans, welfare and transport issues. GIS (Geographic Information Systems) play a major part in providing a common platform. We also have a telecoms degradation plan if we lose fixed-line and mobile services.’

Flooding is a key issue for the Environment Agency, whose Karen Hetherington said: ‘We are rigorous in mapping these kinds of scenarios against vital infrastructure. We’ve undertaken mass re-mapping, almost down to individual property level, and we share that with other people.’

The emergency services in this instance will generally be guided by the EA and local authorities. Dave Simpson said that the police would help co-ordinate the rescue operations, Garry Phillips noted that the ambulance service would not normally be involved in evacuations, only with injuries. Private companies are usually brought in to move those people. ‘We generally rely on the fire service to rescue casualties and get them to us,’ he said.

Sue Lampard asked whether maps of vulnerable people exist for sharing. Phillips replied that primary care trusts hold that information, while Reynolds said that utilities also hold lists of vulnerable people.
Surrey County Council’s Twomey added: ‘A lot of agencies are involved in compiling that information. We’ve got an electronic format of how to share that information depending on the setup. The fire services are part of our setup, so it’s easy to share with them.’

Olaf Baars at Royal Berkshire FRS flagged the major problem with data: ‘The speed of getting this information is not quick enough. There are databases commercially available that tell you where people are immediately. But there are issues around databases, when it comes to critical national infrastructure – these are not widely shared until incidents occur.’

Baars also highlighted the fact that moving people creates a problem. It is also likely that the water supply and gas supply is off and maybe electricity too. ‘You also have to consider sustainability issues for all the emergency services. If local petrol stations are flooded you need to find ways to refuel vehicles.’

Lampard asked: ‘How do we get from the point where we are now to something that is more linked up? It seems to involve a lot of phone calls.’

Raynor would encourage people to use HITS and the NRE. ‘HITS is paid for by the Cabinet Office, so there are no cost implications for responders.’ Lampard agreed that HITS was a great tool, but queried whether it can help much with interoperability between Category 1 and 2 responders. The NRE is more widely available, as all responders are able to access it as long as they have an internet connection.

Twomey also pointed out that the voluntary sector is not tapped into all these systems. ‘We need to talk to them without fixed or mobile communications. That means we need other capabilities. No matter what technology we are using, it will only be effective if end users are trained in their use. It’s up to local responders to maintain this, but in the case of the NRE, there is the opportunity to hold more exercises nationally.’

Raynor did not disagree, but pointed out: ‘There’s a balance to be struck as to how much national government can mandate how things should be done. Responders are often much better at knowing what should be done at the local level. HITS can be a tactical as well as a strategic service, as the Transportables can be deployed closer to the scene of a response.

'With HITS you can also easily dial into other networks such as mobile phones or commercial satellite phones. At the strategic level, HITS is designed to allow Strategic Coordination Centres to communicate with other SCCs (as well as Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms) when routine networks are unavailable.’


After the panel had considered how they would deal with our two scenarios, they compiled a list of action points aimed at improving inter-agency communication during public safety incidents

  • Voice may be less needed for some responders (e.g fire service) in the future, but the need for data will increase. How will this be addressed? 
  • Is there scope for common network management across the emergency services on the Airwave network during major incidents to help manage capacity issues? 
  • The ability to interoperate and communicate technically (voice and data) when necessary is needed, but not necessarily all the time – it’s costly to do. 
  • Major incidents tend to be rare events, so Category 1 and 2 responders are not used to working together. More inter-agency training is needed for major incidents, but it can be difficult for some organisations to find the time and resources to do this. 
  • Base responses to major incidents on common day-to-day operations can be scaled up quickly to help familiarise responders when dealing with unusual events.
  • Greater standardisation of emergency planning/liaison officer roles across different responders would be useful.
  • There is a heavy reliance on fixed and more especially mobile phones, particularly among Category 2 responders. This leaves them vulnerable should the mobile networks go down during an incident.
  • Both the NRE and HITS are useful tools but responders need to be made more aware of their potential and more training is needed based on a national strategy for their use.
  • Providing a common operational picture is very useful for contextualising the incident, but it can lead to information overload and hinder decision making. How to find and provide the right information to the right people in a timely fashion?
  • Both the opportunities and difficulties caused by the rapid rise in the use of social media by the public needs to be addressed: monitoring social media can be useful for intelligence and awareness, but it can be difficult to cope with the volume of data. It should also be considered for communicating information to the public during incidents. 


JESIP – Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Programme

Paul Kinsella, Superintendent – communications interoperability implementation coordinator at ACPO UK Operational Interoperability Portfolio, gave a brief overview of JESIP, which is designed to improve the way emergency responders work together at complex incidents.

JESIP was conceived in May this year under the auspices of the Home Secretary, who has approved the release of funding to support a two-year programme of work to September 2014.  Kinsella said the cornerstone of any response to a major event is that it should be based on a ‘business as usual’ approach that can be rapidly scaled up to meet the demands of the incident. 

JESIP was formally launched at the Emergency Services Show 2012 at Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire on 21-22 November 2012 with coordination from the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) Services Ltd, supported by AACE and ACPO.

The theme of improving interoperability between Category 1 and 2 responders at major events is expected to be further addressed at the British APCO 2013 show on 29-30 April 2013 at Manchester Central.

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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