The government has finally begun to make emergency-services collaboration happen
After decades of dithering - and a high profile IT disaster - the government appears to be driving emergency services to collaborate.
Penny Mordaunt, junior minister at the department for Communities and Local Government CLG), claimed this week: "We are seeing a noticeable shift by the emergency services towards greater partnership working." She promised that the government "will support you in those endeavours to make collaboration a reality".
Successive governments have floated the idea of amalgamating ambulance, fire and police infrastructure and systems for decades. However apart from some special cases, such as very remote geographical locations, the concept has foundered because of differing cultures, organisational boundaries and union opposition.
However Mordant said the mood has now changed, with a joint statement from the Chief Fire Officers Association, Association of Ambulance Chief Executives and Chief Police Officers "committing them to working together to explore collaborative working".
Equally important, Whitehall - which historically has had little incentive to drive collaboration through - is putting its money where its mouth is. The three departments involved are jointly funding the Emergency Services Collaboration Working Group. It is due to report back before the end of this parliament, Mordant said.
She described the current picture of collaboration as "patchy". However she was able to cite some stories of success on the ground:
- Lincolnshire fire and rescue service's Joint Ambulance Conveyance Project, run in partnership with East Midlands Ambulance Service and Lincolnshire Integrated Voluntary Emergency Service, where on-call fire-fighters respond to medical emergencies.
- A shared fire/police station in Sheringham, Norfolk, accommodating local ambulance crews, on-call firefighters, the neighbourhood policing team and the coastguard. This has increased efficiencies from joint procurement, and reduced the costs of property management and utilities.
Collaborative procurement is a key priority, she said. Fire services spend £127 million every year on fire and rescue-specific products such as clothing and vehicles. "Collaboration on this portion of spending alone could achieve savings of at least £18 million."
The Chief Fire Officers Association is "considering creating a national fire back office which could mean that procurement, and other policy areas would be co-ordinated nationally". CLG department has awarded £370,000 from the Fire Transformation Fund to support this work.
Meanwhile, the procurement of a joint communications system, to replace the current Airwave system, is under way. Airwave, which was installed by police services in the early 2000s and slowly extended to other emergency services "is looking increasingly outdated compared to the modern smart-phones and 4G networks that so many of us use in our private lives," Mordant said.
Under the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme a new system will be procured in 2015. The new Emergency Services Network (ESN) is due to go live in 2017, the year after the existing contract expires.
The underlying driving force is austerity, Mordant told emergency services leaders. "In a time of reduced public spending it is even more important than ever to think about collaborative working and leadership with other emergency and public services. Of course there will be difficulties and frustrations along the way - and government recognises that one size does not fit all - but if some of you can achieve transformational change then I strongly believe so can everyone."