Converging Communications in the Emergency Services

Threaded through this is a genuine wish among those in charge or, and those at the sharp-end of these organisations to deliver a better, and more appropriate service to those in need. Underpinning all of this is a need to improve how we communicate.

The Government target for a budget reduction in the region of 25% is driving a massive cost saving exercise, requiring the re-thinking of the way in which services are delivered, both by the front-line and to the front-line by back office functions. This enforced reconsideration of how services are provided is an opportunity to consider the wider issue of how the Emergency Services, as a whole, deliver their services, and how they can work together to meet this target.

Increasingly the Emergency Services are working more closely together in their response to incidents; from the major headline making events, such as a terrorist bomb, or a major rail accident but also at a more routine level. Incidents often require the attendance of two or three of the blue-light services (consider for a moment those needed to deal with a road traffic collision). Frequently this collaboration extends well beyond the traditional emergency services and also requires the attendance of the social services, vehicle recovery, volunteer search teams and many others. Finally, after the immediate emergency is over, there are a wide range of other partners that can become involved through issues such as a criminal prosecution, the protection of vulnerable people, and long-term medical care. A single incident, starting with a simple 999 call, can lead to the engagement of dozens of different agencies and entities.

Alongside this, the society in which the Emergency Services operate is changing in many areas; demographics, technical literacy, and the demands it is placing on the emergency services. Population is increasing, technology is changing how we live and how we interact, and we are living longer.

The changing society also drives the expected capabilities of the Emergency Services. Much as the advent of smart-phones, on-line services and social media such as Facebook, has led to changes in the way that people generally communicate, they will impact on the Emergency Services in two fundamental ways;

  • They can be leveraged within the Emergency Services to improve the way that communication occurs internally, and to reduce the cost of that communication; and
  • They can be used to improve how we contact and collaborate with stakeholders and our partners in delivering our services.

The first directly supports the requirements to reduce operating costs. Modern converged communications systems are usually cheaper to implement and more cost effective to use compared to traditional technology such as stand-alone radio systems and private telephone networks. Part of this is due to the general reduction in technology costs, but the most significant impact is due to the economies of scale associated with a technology used by a wide range of businesses and consumers, rather than the cost of technology to support a specific niche business. Simply, when you have to recover the development costs, a dedicated police radio, that would sell at most 150,000 units, is always going to be more expensive than a smart-phone that could sell ten million or more units.

Similarly, with contracts to support these communications services; a single larger contract, supporting a converged solution, is going to be more cost effective than managing multiple smaller contracts for many different communications systems on many different technologies.

The other significant driver is the need to improve our communication with our partners and those that are users of our services. These two communities have different relationships with the frontline Emergency Services; in general the public want to rapidly get information to into the right part of the service to obtain some form of action, or gain an appropriate response. In communicating with partners, then the role is reversed, and the Emergency Service wishes to access quickly the right part of the partner agency to obtain service from them, or to start that agencies internal process.

This need to present the right part of a service to the user has led to the adoption of centralised communication hubs, such as the Metropolitan Police’s Central Communications Command, able in principle to address or reliably forward all of the caller requests. As the variety of means of communications from the public increases, then these centres and the organisations using them need to adopt a wide range of communications methods, from simple telephone calls, through e-mail and SMS to Instant Messaging and Twitter.

Handling these different communications methods, with their differing characteristics, requires the convergence of the communications technologies. Without this there is a severe risk of increased costs through running multiple contracts supporting multiple technologies utilising multiple interconnections. However, convergence at a technological level is now common place and being delivered to consumers. This gives an opportunity to take advantage of existing developments. The complexity here for most Services is around internally in re-organising their support teams to be able to deliver these converged solutions.

It is not only the contact centre that benefits from convergence, being able to deliver the same multiple methods of communication to all in the service gives significant advantages, along with the one key development: Presence.

Presence allows the availability, and the best method of contact, for an individual to be shared with others. This reduces the wasted effort in contacting people, and enables a person to manage more efficiently how they are contacted. Extending this across an organisation allows the contact centre to pass calls more efficiently without multiple attempts; it enables teams of people to be assembled more quickly based on skills and availability. It removes the guesswork from attempting to contact people.

All of this can now be delivered to anyone, anywhere in an organisation using normal, consumer grade equipment and services. Only for specialist rolls are toughened and highly resilient services required, and again, these are widely available in the marketplace.

Tayside Fire and Rescue were among the early Emergency Service adopters and have demonstrated significant savings and operational advantages through the use of fully converged technology, although others are now following close behind them now that the business case for this has been proven.

The advantages of converged communications and presence are even more significant if they can be shared across multiple agencies. This is now happening as organisations collaborate in procuring the underlying infrastructure for these joined up solutions. In Wales, a PSN (Public Services Network) contract has been agreed connecting eight public-sector bodies in Gwent, including the Emergency Services. A similar arrangement is being progressed between the Greater London Authority bodies and others across London, with many other local and regional schemes at varying stages of completeness. As they are all using the Cabinet Offices PSN frameworks, then these new jointly procured networks all interconnect, giving any PSN subscriber access to the services provided by any other.

This progression towards large scale commonly procured networks is driven by the two fundamental needs to reduce costs and improve the collaboration between agencies. There are, however, several issues that have to be addressed as part of this collaboration:

  • There is a cost associated with the establishment of the new services, and while savings are delivered throughout the lifetime of the service, these costs are upfront.
  • There may be significant differences in the capabilities, requirements and business focuses of the participating agencies. This can cause tension in any relationships.
  • Different agencies have different governance and approvals regimes. This needs to be delegated to a single entity to prevent a continual cycle of approval for each minor change.
  • The contractual arrangements are different from those of a single service for a single agency.

However, as has been shown in Gwent, Hampshire, Kent and many other places, these are not insurmountable problems, and the opportunities that converged technology and delivery give are significant.

While the methods of communication are increasing, the types of services being offered through these communications systems are also increasing. The move of applications to centralised, virtualised, cloud type solutions (again to save costs and improve services) puts a critical demand on the performance and integrity of the communications network. As applications, such as e-mail, become more critical to the delivery of the emergency response, rather than a back office convenience, then again the underlying infrastructure becomes of critical importance.

Enhanced and converged communications are critical to the future cost effective delivery of Emergency Services and the co-ordination of the response to incidents. Getting there is now very possible, following the precedents already being set by the early adopters both within the Emergency Services and among other commercial enterprises. For those that are able to make this progress, the rewards are significant.

The Wales PSN project is profiled in an online booklet by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT after collecting an award in the BCS UK IT Industry Awards 2010. The case study can be found at www.bcs.org/awards

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