The ability of the UK emergency services to transfer incident data between different agencies received a massive boost last week (22 March 2016) when the Cabinet Office approved the Multi Agency Incident Transfer (MAIT) standard and made it mandatory for all Government departments. It is not mandatory at this stage for the emergency services, but they will be encouraged to adopt it.
The development of MAIT stemmed from a recognition that the UK’s current way of transferring incident data is both inefficient and behind the times technologically. Generally, if more than one emergency service or Category 2 responder such as the Highways Agency is required to respond to an incident, the incident data has to relayed by phone from the agency that first took the alert.
This is time consuming and prone to inaccuracy. What is required is a way to populate computer aided dispatch (CAD) systems in command and control centres with incident data – and other information – automatically at the push of a button.
Hub data exchange
MAIT goes some way to enabling this. It is based around a centralised Hub rather than trying to set up multiple point-to-point connections between agencies. Data can be loaded into the hub and then retrieved by other organisations.
As each of the emergency services has their own way of doing things with associated terminology; the Fire Services classifies fires in a number of different ways, for example. To overcome confusion, a Common Operating Picture has been worked out to enable shared situation awareness.
MAIT developed out of a proof of concept trial conducted in South Wales in 2012 under the title of DEIT (Direct Electronic Incident Transfer), which proved to be very successful, and just as importantly, popular with its emergency services users.
Since then, British APCO, spearheaded in particular by its immediate past president Sue Lampard, has championed the MAIT concept and has been working hard over the last few years with other volunteers to establish it as a standard and get central Government interested in taking it forward.
One of the great difficulties has been finding a Government department that will take leadership for MAIT and help provide or find funding to develop it. But with the emergency services spread across different departments, none of them has been willing to do so until recently.
Speaking to Wireless at the British APCO Conference and Exhibition last week (22-23 March 2016), Lampard was delighted that the Cabinet Office had given its backing to MAIT as a standard to be adopted by all Government departments after years of trying to get the concept adopted.
‘A lot of credit needs to go to James Findlay, CTO at the Department for Transport and Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) for MAIT, as he has pushed it through all the approval panels,’ said Lampard. ‘Now MAIT is approved as a Government standard and is mandated for all Government departments.’
Lampard explained that a shared router or hub strategy has been adopted. The Coastguard is putting in a router at its Fareham and Aberdeen offices, which can be used by anyone. Other routers may be sited with the Highways Agency in Birmingham, while the Welsh DEIT team are likely to update their hub system.
‘The plan is to have strategically placed routers across the UK so you just have your MAIT compliant end system and plug into the router. But you don’t have to buy the router, so that will make life easy for people in the future who want to do it and why wouldn’t you? The good news is that this is funded by central Government, so everyone can use these routers,’ said Lampard.
At a session later in the day entitled UK Data Exchange –what’s next at the B-APCO event last week, another champion of MAIT over the years, Martin Jewell of the Metropolitan Police and part of the MAIT Group, commented that the vision is to change Multi Agency Incident Transfer to Multi Agency Information Transfer, but added that: ‘We have not got the technical standards to do that yet; we are some way off that.
‘What we are after is a standard data structure to pass information about incidents in a way that the receiving systems could automate the responses or some of them. MAIT is capable of doing that. We have built in extensions to MAIT as we don’t pretend to know what everyone needs or what their systems require.
‘So, if someone wants to add something to the standard, but without changing the standard, then these can be added; or they can have variations tailored for specific services. By doing it this way, we avoid having to go through the very lengthy approval process,’ said Jewell.
He continued: ‘But now we have got Government approval for MAIT we can talk to vendors like Capita and Unisys seriously. There has been a lot of collaboration between agencies and industry, and foreign companies have contributed to this too.
‘It has been a massive effort and it has take a lot of hard work to achieve a consensus, but the good thing is industry is already part of the gang as they’ve been involved with the process, so now we can go to the suppliers and really get going,’ said Jewell.
Andy Rooke, Vice President, B-APCO, commented that throughout Europe now the buzzword is MAIT, especially following civil disasters such as flooding and the refugee crisis. ‘They need information transfer and they cannot do it. MAIT can help, so please continue what you are doing as it is vital.’
There seemed to be some reluctance among emergency service delegates in the audience to adopt MAIT with some citing cost and others the need to pin down the shifting MAIT standard.
Another delegate suggested that it was not just the availability of interfaces that was at issue, but how different organisations are connected together when they come from different environments with different security standards. Someone else offered the view that the reluctance was not necessarily about being scared of change, but more about a lack of understanding of what data could do – a lack of vision in other words.
MAIT and ESN
As regards how MAIT can fit in with the aspirations of the new Emergency Services Network, John Anthony, Vice President B-APCO and the Business Change Lead for the Fire Services for Emergency Services Network (ESN), said he hoped MAIT could be accessed via the ESN app store, which will be overseen by the ESN Lot User Services provider, Motorola Solutions.
‘I’d hope MAIT could be used through that store,’ said Anthony, ‘so when you buy an app you know it will work with others. Otherwise there will be lots of apps that only work in isolation and EE (the ESN Lot 3 main area network provider) and Motorola will be kicking us because we are clogging up the bandwidth with other apps.’
Mike Griffin, chair of the session, said that MAIT is a big vision but the key is to achieve things in smaller step. ‘End systems, routers and so on should be done a piece at a time so everyone can use MAIT. It is no good rushing ahead to something that is not robust enough. We need to take careful steps forward but be looking ahead to that bigger vision.’
John Anthony added: ‘We need to articulate that bigger vision and no one is doing it. Sue Lampard championed it before, so maybe B-APCO can articulate the vision, champion it, keep Government on side and get people in Europe interested. We are talking to the standards body ETSI to see if they can use what we are doing to create a European standard.’
Andy Rooke summed up by saying: ‘A road map is required and each organisation needs to look hard internally as to where it wants to go and what it has no choice about doing. But there are already hard miles stones on the road map which you have to be ready for, such as eCall coming in next October 2017. It has to happen and you have to ready. eCAll is all about data; the technology is not standing still and some of the emergency services have stood still for a while now.’