[Mr Dai Havard in the Chair] — Emergency Services (Interoperability)
Mark Pawsey (Rugby, Conservative)
I shall come to local resilience forums and the useful part that they play in bringing people together. Communications are key, with people working together and understanding the different ways of operating. Clearly, through training at an institution such as the one in my hon. Friend’s constituency, emergency services personnel can get to understand more about the actions of colleagues not only in their own service but in other services. That understanding can be crucial in getting the right help to an incident as fast as possible. Not only must the police, fire and ambulance services be able to work with each other, but every individual force within each service needs to be able to do so as well. There are 53 police forces in the UK and their work often overlaps, most often at a force boundary but also when specialist forces such as the British Transport police are involved or when officers travel to another area to provide support at an event. Good communications are at the heart of such interoperability.
One organisation cannot work with another if it does not know what the other organisation is doing or trying to achieve. Sometimes that is straightforward, such as ensuring that all staff within a service use the same sort of language as other services. For instance, there is anecdotal evidence about the terminology used by the emergency services during the 7/7 bombings. To some, talk of “casualties” found in the tunnels meant injured people, but to those in another service a “casualty” was someone who had died, so when they heard the word, support was not prioritised because they believed it was too late. Another example—the blowing of whistles—comes
from the time of the IRA bombings in Manchester in 1996. When the police blow a whistle, all available officers run towards the sound; when the military blow a whistle, everyone stands to attention; and when the fire service blows a whistle, everyone runs away because it is a sign that a building is in danger of collapse. There was no danger as a result in that particular incident, but the different responses to the sound of a whistle show how important it is to make certain that everyone responding to an emergency speaks the same language and works to the same procedures.
I am pleased to note that in July 2007 the National Policing Improvement Agency produced a guide to language to be used over the Airwave network, “AirwaveSpeak”. That was an early step to ensure that all police agencies spoke the same language. The development should be continued more broadly, to include other emergency services.
The quality of the technology is also important to ensure the achievement of interoperability. Before the Airwave network was rolled out nationally in 2005, the emergency services throughout the country used different systems and were not able to communicate easily with one another, leading to practical difficulties. For example, police officers working at force boundaries had to swap radio handsets regularly in order to keep in touch with each other. Now the situation has changed and members of all three emergency services and up to 300 other organisations have access to a common communications platform.
A recent example of the benefits of interoperability occurred last summer, during the 2011 riots, when unprecedented disorder took place in some towns and cities throughout England. An important point to note about those events was the sheer scale of the operations that the emergency services had to deal with. The number of police on duty in the capital rose from 6,000 to 16,000, and officers came to London from 25 different forces, from as far afield as Devon and Cornwall and Strathclyde. Crucially, even with such substantially increased numbers, all the forces involved were able to communicate with one another because they were operating on a common communications platform. Therefore, the necessary complex response to that event was co-ordinated and officers from different parts of the country could work together. There was criticism of the Airwave radio network—hon. Members may have read such criticism an article in The Observer in December 2011—but the company’s rebuttal and subsequent media reporting clearly show that the network did exactly what it was created to do and supported interoperability in action.
A recent experience of our emergency services looking after a substantial number of people at an event was the diamond jubilee weekend, when the communications network helped the emergency services to work together effectively. I shall give an insight into just how many people used the network at the weekend. I have been told that, as we might expect, the key time was the river pageant on the Sunday. That was the peak day of operations, and during the 12-hour period between 6 o’clock in the morning and 6 o’clock in the evening, 125,315 radio handsets were used by the emergency services across the network. There were more than 1 million interactions across 135 sites. Some 74 organisations, including police, ambulance, fire and rescue services—
emergency blue-light services—from all over the country were on the network and forces came from as far afield as the Isle of Wight, mid-Wales and Fife.
In addition to the police services, which were defined as clearly marked users, making use of the system, a further 93 users were recorded as having used the Airwave direct network, including groups such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Transport for London, the Highways Agency and the Port of London Authority. The fact that emergency and non-blue-light services could talk to one another therefore led to success on that day. The Olympics are just around the corner and will start in 45 days. The diamond jubilee weekend was useful, early experience for our emergency services in preparation for what will almost certainly be the biggest test of working together. They can go into the rest of the summer with confidence.
I understand that the Port of London Authority, a user of the system, is looking forward to working on the Olympics and to facilitating
“a response which is both integrated and resilient”.
The Olympics provide a fantastic opportunity for our country. The eyes of the world will be on the UK and London in particular, and excitement is rightly starting to build in London as we approach the event. However, for our emergency services, the Olympics are their biggest challenge. Having visited the Olympics site with the all-party group on emergency services earlier in the year, I am confident that our services are well prepared for the challenge, and I look forward to their success.
One feature will be the armed forces’ contribution to Olympics security, and we will start to see interoperability between the emergency services and the military. The interest in the military’s role in providing security was evidenced by questions to the Secretary of State for Defence in the House just yesterday. The armed forces will use the same communications network as the emergency services, with about 8,000 military personnel having access to that service, making up around 3% of communications network users throughout the Olympics. They will act as reservists, and 13,500 personnel will be called up for the games, although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch said, the police will be the lead service in terms of security.
I was interested to attend a recent all-party group on the armed forces briefing on the military’s contribution to Olympics security. Their role is divided into three sections: safety and security; support for operations; and a wider contingency role. It is clear that the planning is detailed, and the attention to detail is impressive. I was interested in a senior naval officer’s response when asked what success would look like. He said that he hoped that the 64 days of the summer Olympics and Paralympics will be the most boring of a servicemen’s career. I think that we all endorse that. I welcome the joining up of the work of the emergency services and armed forces.
I turn to shared assets. There is a link between services working closely together and their ability to share assets. Sharing assets is a big opportunity for public services more broadly to effect financial savings. I recently spoke at a Royal United Services Institute conference entitled “Blue Light Air Assets: Future Operations”, when particular consideration was given to the future of air assets. Sharing such assets is vital in helping the emergency services to work together with the coastguard and air ambulance services.
I pay particular tribute to the air ambulance service. In recent years, I have become involved with the Warwickshire and Northampton air ambulance service, which operates in my constituency. Air assets are used extensively and to great effect by all the emergency services, and in the UK the majority of those air assets are helicopters. RUSI’s research papers all point to the importance of the blue-light air service’s contribution. Crucially, in the UK, there is currently no co-ordination of those air assets, nationally or across agencies. Sadly, individual emergency services and regional forces currently operate their own air assets in isolation, and that goes back to the issue that I referred to earlier: silo thinking.