Interoperability between Emergency Services: A Missed Opportunity?


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.

Further Education Matters

At the end of last month, the Government outlined their plans for adult further education.

Excluding funding for apprenticeships, the budget for 2015/16 will be cut by 24 per cent. That’s 24 per cent of the funding for adults who want to gain a better education later in life. Further education was deeply scarred as it was, with a third of its budget already severed since the 2010 election.

The teaching of basic skills such as numeracy and literacy is a key aspect of further adult education, and it’s not as if the UK ranks highly on this front and we don’t need to worry. According to the OECD, it’s quite the opposite and the government is fully aware of the problem.

Its own 2014/15 report on Adult Literacy and Numeracy stresses the importance of these skills both to the economy and to the learners themselves, who are healthier, happier and better off as a result of their improved abilities.

At a personal level literacy lies in the development of self-identity; in our social, cultural and emotional life. In my recent study Learning trajectories, Violence and Empowerment amongst Adult Basic Skills Learners (2013), I explored the learning journeys of adult basic skills learners.  For the male and female learners, returning to education was a means for them to develop their literacy skills and more.

Literacy was very much linked with their subjectivity and how they viewed their self-worth in the public space (for example, work) and private spaces (for example, the home). They wanted to develop their confidence, improve their social and economic positioning and improve their life chances and those of their children. The study confirmed the incredible power of Adult Education to enrich learners’ lives, and importantly offer them choices they never thought possible.

When one of the research participants, Joanne, a single mum with three children, arrived at college, she struggled to read and write. Initially, she sat at the back of the class, lacking confidence and avoiding eye contact. However, after Joanne joined the research group, we began to spend more time together. This allowed us the opportunity to speak in detail about the barriers she had faced and her hopes and aspirations for the future. She described how she had come to college to learn to fill out forms and to become more confident in spelling. However, as Joanne’s confidence increased in both herself and her writing skills, there was a simultaneous shift in aspirations. This was the first time she had planned for the future.

She began to make choices that she previously thought were not for people from her background.

She began to speak about a career rather than a job. After completing a Level 2 course in literacy and numeracy, Joanne progressed onto an access to nursing course, then to university to pass her diploma.

She is now a qualified staff nurse working in the north of England.

Any discussion of basic skills, and its impact in challenging the barriers and inequalities faced by many learners, cannot overlook the vital issue (and what can be a real barrier) of funding.

Basic skills provision needs to continue to be fully funded for all adults, including providing choices of flexible and accessible formal courses together with supporting those with skills at lower levels to engage in informal learning.

Basic skills courses for young and older adults can offer them a crucial second chance of re-engaging with education.