Ambitious plans go beyond past failed shared services schemes
A 20-year-old dream of amalgamating emergency services’ command and control systems is among the more modest proposals unveiled this week for joint working between ambulance, fire and police services.
The proposals, trailed by the Prime Minister in a speech on public services, also involve encouraging police and crime commissioners to take over responsibility for fire services and become employers of their support staff.
Details appear in a consultation document from the Home Office, Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department of Health.
As promised by David Cameron, it proposes placing a duty on blue light services “to actively consider collaboration opportunities”. On top of this, police and crime commissioners would take on the duties of fire and rescue authorities, creating a single employer for fire and police staff.
In London, the mayor would take over responsibility for fire and rescue services from the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, which would be abolished.
Overall, the plan is far more ambitious than the last Labour government’s FiReControl project, which wasted £500m on regional fire control centres which were never used. However, the document stresses that decisions should be taken at a local level. It also states twice that “the important distinction between operational policing and firefighting will be maintained.”
The document claims a democratic mandate, saying the Conservatives’ election manifesto was clear that “we will enable fire and police services to work more closely together and develop the role of our elected and accountable police and crime commissioners”. Despite this, the plan can expect a rough ride.
In the past, the different cultures and workloads of the three main emergency services have been used as an argument against shared working. The new plan proposes the opposite.
The document notes that incidents attended by fire and rescue services have fallen by 48% over the past decade. Conversely, there is increasing demand on the ambulance service: emergency responses to the most urgent calls have increased by 25% over five years. Hence the opportunity for amalgamating command and control.
Current good practice
Some local initiatives are already taking steps towards this. Examples of current good practice cited in the document include:
- Surrey and Sussex emergency services’ development of the Multi-Agency Information Transfer Programme to connect existing command and control systems. The scheme will create a fully integrated contact and control centre, amalgamating 13 existing centres and saving 7,500 operator-hours a year.
- Hampshire's police, fire and rescue services’ development of shared headquarters, with promised savings of £1m.
Despite such initiatives, “the picture of collaboration around the country is still patchy and there is much more to do to improve value for money and the service to the public”.
The proposals have already run into opposition from the Fire Brigades Union, which claimed that firefighters’ community role could be damaged.
The union’s general secretary Matt Wrack said: “Firefighters need to be seen to be neutral within the communities they serve. Links with law enforcers will damage the much needed trust and reputation firefighters have built up in neighbourhoods over decades, trust they depend on to gain access to peoples’ homes when needed for fire prevention and rescue work. We will challenge these proposals and appeal to local politicians to do the same.”
The government’s document concedes that “strong leadership will be required”. The consultation closes on 23 October. More information from [email protected]