Interoperability between Emergency Services: A Missed Opportunity?

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Professor Paresh Wankhade (Business School) analyses the latest Interoperability proposals offered by the government:

The governance of the emergency services in England is complex and the three main emergency services (ambulance, police, and fire & rescue) are structured differently, largely as a result of the relatively ad-hoc nature of their historical development. In September 2015, the UK Government published the consultation document ‘Enabling closer working between the Emergency Services’ aimed at promoting better coordination of emergency services in England. The government argued that the present levels of coordination and collaboration are uneven and not as well developed as they might be.

Earlier this month it was formally announced that fire and rescue services will be transferred to the Home Office from the Department of Communities and Local Government. However the Chief Fire Officers Association has sought clarity on issues pertaining to transitioning policy, provisions to meet national emergencies, in-depth risk assessment framework and sustainable budgeting principles to separate fire budgets from police and other Home Office Budgets.

This week the government published the ‘Summary of consultation responses and next steps’ to the Consultation after receiving over 300 responses. The Government intends to legislate to:

  • Introduce a high level duty to collaborate on all three emergency services, to improve efficiency or effectiveness;
  • Enable Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) to take on the functions of fire and rescue authorities (FRAs), where a local case is made;
  • Where a PCC takes on the responsibilities of their local FRA, further enabling him or her to create a single employer for police and fire personnel;
  • In areas where a PCC has not become responsible for fire and rescue services, enabling them to have representation on their local FRA with voting rights, where the local FRA agrees; and
  • Abolish the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority and give the Mayor of London direct responsibility for the fire and rescue service in London.

The proposed governance arrangements contained within the consultation document present a number of challenges and has received mixed responses. The Local Government Association (LGA) raised concerns in their response to the consultation document. It contended that the changes would be a distraction from existing patterns of cooperation and could indeed undermine existing arrangements where the boundaries between the fire & rescue services and PCCs are not coterminous. Government’s proposals to allow PCCs to take responsibility for their local fire and rescue services was dubbed as ‘dangerous’ by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU).

It is worth noting that some of the proposals in the latest consultation are not original. In 2013, the government commissioned report ‘Facing The Future’ led by Sir Ken Knight, former government Fire and Rescue advisor (and Visiting Professor at Edge Hill Business School) had reviewed the efficiencies and operations in the fire and rescue authorities in England. The report had further proposed the merging of fire and rescue services with the possibility of the PCCs taking on the role of fire and rescue authority after due evaluation.

The latest consultation response assumes both the desirability of PCCs taking over the leadership of fire services and the ‘single employer’ form of merger to promote greater efficiencies. There are concerns that that giving a wide range of powers to a single individual will necessarily provide greater benefits than having an elected body with those powers. The merger process can have its own unintended consequences and there is enough academic evidence to suggest that such a process is likely to have an adverse impact on individual staff and organisational capacity to deliver intended benefits. Moreover, the requirement and mechanisms for the PCCs to have access to an informed, independent assessment of the operational performance of the fire services remain to be finalised.

The proposals while suggesting a legal duty to collaborate, do not clarify what would constitute evidence of a failure to collaborate, who would be allowed to institute proceedings should this allegedly happen and what would be the penalty for non-compliance. The role and responsibility of the NHS ambulance trusts in determining their legal duty remains unclear and efforts should be made to reflect their role within these proposals and in future legislative changes including possible impact on the governance of the ambulance services.

One key pubic message emerging is that the government wants the police, fire and ambulance services in England to share control rooms to improve their response to 999 calls. But this is already happening in many parts of the country (such as in Bootle in Merseyside) without a formal merger/integration. The long standing question of addressing the issue of different professional cultures in the three emergency services remains unattended in these proposals. Lack of specific proposals to improve strategic leadership across these organisations in brining transformational change can seriously hamper bringing real change in attitudes and culture(s) within the blue-light services.   There is a danger that the current process may lead to a ritualistic compliance and perverse consequences.

The consultation process was the first real opportunity to look into the important question of improving interoperability between the three main emergency services. By limiting the scope of the consultation to seek views on the proposed integration of police and fire & rescue services and giving power to PCCs to take on the functions of the fire rescue authorities, a golden opportunity has been lost for having an honest and frank discussion about the future of our emergency services.

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Paresh Wankhade

Paresh Wankhade

Paresh Wankhade is the Professor of Leadership and Management at Edge Hill University Business School. He is the Founder Editor of the International Journal of Emergency Services and is recognised as an expert in this field.

His research and publications focus on the analyses of organisational leadership, cultural change and interoperability between the emergency services. His work assists debates around interoperability of emergency ‘blue-light’ services and challenges faced by individual services.

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