Data exchange for the emergency services

UK public safety partners are working together to find a way to exchange data between them by agreeing common procedures supported by a single technical standard for the commercial sector to work with. James Atkinson reports on the progress so far

Data exchange for the emergency services

At present the UK emergency services are without a system to easily exchange data electronically aside from some localised point-to-point (PTP) arrangements. 

If the police take a call and need to contact other agencies, they have to ring and ask them to attend the incident. The incident details have to be passed verbally with the consequent possibility of inaccuracies creeping into the system. It is a cumbersome and time consuming process – never a good thing in an emergency.

What should happen ideally is that once the incident details are logged by the initial agency, the data would be transferred at the push of a button and automatically populate the command and control of the other agencies. This would save time and ensure accuracy.

Welsh pilot scheme

Moves have been made towards creating this kind of data exchange in a more structured way. In 2012, a pilot was run between Gwent Police, South Wales Fire & Rescue Service and Newport City Council. It was supported by the Welsh Joint Emergency Services Group, the Welsh Government and the Cabinet Office. 

The pilot became known as DEIT (Direct Electronic Incident Transfer) – now known as MAIT (Multi-Agency Incident Transfer). The idea was to test the concept of a ‘hub-based’ approach to the data exchange. The Cabinet Office involvement enabled use of the NRE (National Resilience Extranet) to provide the hub infrastructure – thereby helping to join the technology already used to provide the UK with resilient communications to that used in everyday business. 

Sue Lampard, President of British APCO and Head of Operational Communications for Surrey Police, explains that DEIT came out of the original 101Single Non-Emergency Number concept. ‘101 was intended to be a non-emergency number to contact public agencies (mainly police and local authorities). It was intended for the public to report issues such as noise and anti-social behaviour. 

‘The expectation was that the agencies involved would share the information and sort the problem out between them. In principle everyone fully supported the idea, but in terms of culture, politics and technology no-one was really ready for it,’ says Lampard.

The ‘101’ concept

In order that the 101 concept was not fully lost, police adopted the number as a national non-emergency contact, with all forces in England, Wales and Scotland now using it. This helped to solve a different issue of a complicated numbering system to contact police and one that was often costly to callers, some of whom would be paying up to 40p per minute from mobile phones. 

The 101 call introduced a flat rate fee (15p per call) which has been adopted by almost all of the telecoms providers. It leaves the potential in the future for the 101 number to be adopted across other partner agencies to allow a true non-emergency ‘government’ contact – and the introduction of DEIT would be a critical factor if this were to happen. 

For this reason, the Welsh pilot was a critical first step to providing fully interoperable working within the public safety sector. The central NRE hub was provided via BT and Ultra, with the participating agencies plugging into that. 

 ‘This is the future,’ says Lampard, ‘a circle in the middle which everyone can simply plug into to exchange data; it would just need a couple of hubs placed within the PSN (Public Sector Network) infrastructure – the secure intranet central government is developing. Then it’s a matter of establishing the technical standard for the software and hardware so everyone can talk to each other.’

The idea is that if one agency receives a call, they can plug into the hub and send the information to any or all of the others who are linked in. However, there would still be human judgement as to where the information goes – it will not just be transferred automatically – to avoid overloading those agencies that would not require it.

Common procedures

Lampard says: ‘The technology is the simple bit. The challenge is to agree common language, incident codings, gazetteer data, security of access and operational protocols. Within a single agency this is difficult enough – to extend it across a number of agencies is a nightmare – and one of the reasons why DEIT and 101 has never yet been truly achieved. 

‘If we developed something where patient care records ended up with the police that would be wrong,’ continues Lampard. ‘It is easy to establish information sharing protocols on a very local PTP agreement basis, but much more difficult to do so nationally. But we need to get to a point where we all agree the same standard and develop it from there.

‘What we want to try and avoid is going down the route of a single national system on one vendor, as that would be anti-competitive,’ says Lampard. ‘We need flexibility around types of software and technology for each agency, but we want to cut down the time it takes to inform agencies and transfer information, so that everyone can see the same picture and get the same incident details.’

Next steps 

The Welsh are keen to progress with the next step and develop more integrated interfaces between the various agencies. In the wider UK, the Cabinet Office, which is in charge of national resilience, has said that the data exchange concept looks like a good thing and that everyone is keen to develop it. 

The Cabinet Office has approached British APCO to work with it to develop the technical standards. ‘We’ll talk to the commercial side and the agency command and control people and work with them to agree the standard,’ says Lampard.

One standard already in fairly wide use is SunGuard (part of Capita) information and communications technology, which is used by the Highways Agency and the police. Capita has agreed to put the next iteration of its software into the Cabinet Office and British APCO’s hands, so there is agreement in principle. 

In December 2012, the Cabinet Office, British APCO and representatives from police, fire and ambulance met and worked on the standard. The aim is to get the first part of the standard ready by autumn 2013. Lampard says it will provide a common agreement and although it will not be an all singing and dancing system, it will be able to transfer basic data such as location, incident type, time, date and so on.

Running parallel with this is the 101 concept. Although everyone agrees the original 101 was a great concept, it is complex, so it will move forward only with police, fire and ambulance for the time being, as critical information is needed first and foremost to enable the blue light services to get to the scene of an incident first and fast. 

End user requirements

Three user groups are working in parallel to come up with an agreement on the information needed by each agency. If there is a call concerning a fire the police don’t need to know what kind of fire it is. But the fire brigade have around 20 ways of categorising a fire. So, establishing common working practices for what each agency needs is going to be quite complex.

Operational and commercial groups were due to meet at the British APCO 2013 show in Manchester at the end of April, where the user requirements were brought before the technical people, so they can begin work on writing the standard.

Lampard makes the point that no agency is being asked to wait until the standard is established. For example, following the collapse of the Fire Control project, the Fire and Rescue Services have all been given funding to update their command and control systems. As electronic information exchange is critical to what they want to do, they will press ahead with that on their own.

‘We are not preventing anyone moving ahead or asking them to wait for us to come up with the standard,’ says Lampard. ‘But at least we all know the path now, so the fire service knows the context of where we are trying to get to and it is the same in Wales.’

Lampard says that everyone is signed up including CFOA, ACPO, AACE, the Cabinet Office, Department of Health and DCLG. JESIP (Joint Emergency Service Interoperability Programme) – which has two years of government funding to help establish better ways of joint working between the emergency services – will also be supporting the DEIT project. Electronic data exchange is not part of what JESIP was set up to do, but it will support it and recommend ways to go forwards.

Underpinning the whole process, for a whole host of considerations including funding issues, is the need not to reinvent the wheel and to introduce electronic data exchange between public safety partners one step at a time. This means harnessing existing technology
and legacy systems to keep costs down and to not overwhelm public safety agencies by attempting a big bang style technological and procedural change.

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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