Our emergency services are under strain like never before, having to manage an ever-growing demand as resource pressures mount. This pressure can be seen on the frontline – in the control rooms across the UK – where staff manage an average of 16.1 calls every minute, according to the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC).
During 2013-14 emergency vehicles responded to 6.33 million calls; 95.1 per cent (6.02 million) were responses to a 999 emergency call and 4.9 per cent (309,260) were in response to a call from the 111 service.
The increase in demand for our emergency services sees no sign of stopping. Britain’s population has been growing twice as fast as the rest of Europe for the past decade, and the Office for National Statistics predicts that the UK population will reach 70 million by 2027.
Both the government and emergency services are having to look at how they can enhance and adapt their control rooms to ensure they get the right people to the right incidents as quickly as possible.
Currently the majority of emergency services run their own network of primary and secondary control rooms that take all the calls – 999 and 101 – directed to that specific service. One of the main problems with this disparate structure is that while there is a level of exchange of incident information from service to service when required, the system is not formalised and there is little joined-up intelligence.
An inability to share intelligence across services and agencies risks inefficiencies and missed opportunities – something which our emergency services can ill afford as the pressure increases on the services.
Indeed, the forces that we regularly meet with tell us that the chance to make savings and improve performance is just part of the story. They emphasise the need for collaboration as well as cooperation. The potential for greater sharing of intelligence across the emergency services has numerous benefits, from the ability to identify vulnerable individuals and families, through to reduced risk to responders and the public.
The intelligence could also be shared with other agencies, including councils, housing associations and social services, creating a far richer level of open data sharing and the ability to pass tasks between agencies far more easily.
The benefits of sharing
So how do we create an environment in which intelligence can be pooled? One potential avenue is through the use of shared estates. In December 2014, Merseyside’s new joint Police and Fire Command and Control Centre was opened. The Joint Control Centre (JCC) now houses Merseyside Police’s Force Contact Centre handling nearly 1.1 million telephone calls from the public each year including those to 101, general enquiries and 280,000 via the 999 emergency number.
While both the police and fire services in Merseyside currently share site infrastructure and facilities, there is also the potential for sharing of technology solutions in the longer term. It is this sharing of technology – a single platform across the emergency services – which could really drive control room reform.
Away from the control rooms there are numerous examples of the emergency services sharing resources, frontline stations and co-responding to incidents, and the control room must be the next logical move for reform.
The Home Office is currently preparing for a new Emergency Service Network, which aims to deliver integrated voice and broadband data services to police, fire and ambulance services.
This will provide more bandwidth for emergency services, allowing them to take advantage of information-rich data more quickly and effectively.
This not only presents call handlers with a big-picture view so that they can make better-informed decisions, it also provides scope for richer levels of information exchange and situational awareness for control rooms and frontline resources.
Beacon forces leading the way
Yet while the need for change is clear, forces across the country are at different levels of advancement. Some are very forward thinking, willing to consider all possibilities in the quest for improved services.
Others are lagging behind. Over the next few years we will see beacon forces in each region – Merseyside being a key example – moving away from the current structure and successfully streamlining their operations.
Some will move to a single contact centre dealing with all incoming calls before selecting the individual emergency service to manage their own resources.
This will go some way to making savings and allows a shared level of contact information for repeat caller identification. Other forces will move to a single contact and despatch centre, coordinating an integrated response and leading to resource sharing and skill transfer across specialist agencies.
Public trust and empowerment
A vital element of the drive to improve service is having the confidence to empower and trust citizens on non-critical events. Take the example of graffiti. If you witness someone spraying graffiti on a wall at your local park, you can use the 101 phone line to report a non-emergency incident.
But if you see graffiti on the wall after the incident, rather than dial 101 or even 999, you could take a picture on your mobile phone and send it to both the police and local authority via a non-emergency website or social media channel such as Facebook or Twitter.
This type of empowerment reduces control centre call volumes and gets the right information to the right agencies via the most efficient channels. But as with any service offered via an online channel, such as banking or shopping, the consumer experience must be good.
A single bad experience – a delayed response or ineffective reaction – means that next time the individual is more likely to pick up the phone instead.
If forces extend how the public can contact them, then contact centre and control room technologies need to keep pace. Forces need a single, integrated solution that can manage voice, text, email, web and social media (compatible with any platform).
Importantly, it needs to maintain a record of contact that keeps the history of conversations with any member of the public in one place, regardless of the channel used. Whatever the chosen route of communication, police forces will need to educate the public about social media use, and manage expectations.
There is little doubt that control rooms need to transform, knocking down the boundaries between support services and the operational frontline.
While deep budget cuts have hastened the need to reform, the forces we are working with are keen to stress that saving money does not mean cutting corners – it means delivering a better customer service.