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Steve Ainsworth, CEO at Active Solutions, on getting fire and rescue services unlocked from legacy ICT systems.
Operational and financial pressures continue to be placed on fire and rescue services but, far too often, they are still working with legacy systems or practices which are cumbersome, inflexible and lack defined processes. Despite recognising these frustrations many remain stuck in old habits and fail to realise the potential that new technology can provide to the wider organisation.
To address this fire and rescue services must change their approach to ICT strategies; a step change is needed to ensure their deployment of technology will enable organisational success. To achieve this, technology must be utilised effectively to support changes of workflow processes across the organisation and facilitate the break down of information silos that can cause data to be locked in one department rather than shared across the service. This in turn can positively affect an organisation’s productivity and responsiveness.
This concept is by no means new; many other industries have already moved ICT into a business enabler rather than it being seen as solely a support function, or worse, the driver of change. Whilst the fire industry has so far not generally moved this way, it is a change that must be made to ensure organisational efficiency and success in the long term.
Taking a big picture approach
The concept of moving technology beyond the sole remit of the IT department may seem a daunting prospect to many fire services, yet it is one that should not be ignored. For those services that recognise the necessity to update or replace legacy systems, this change becomes even more imperative.
The danger that many fire services are facing lies within the decision to just replace an old proprietary system with a newer proprietary system in a tactical and piecemeal manner rather than taking a more strategic or holistic approach. Whilst the solution may seem sufficient in the short term it will still not interact seamlessly with other stand alone systems nor support process changes across other parts of the organisation, and so will ultimately fail to improve organisation performance. In the long run both time and money will be wasted through a failure of the solution to efficiently meet organisational requirements.
Historically ICT purchasing decisions have been made from the bottom up, with the decision made by IT people or by operational departments only addressing their own specific requirements. In stark contrast, software purchases need to be made by taking a top down approach with the focus put on the overall business. To do this, careful and strategic consideration must be given to ‘what do we want the organisation to look like’ and as a result the question of ‘what tools do we need to make that happen’ can be appropriately answered.
A prime example of this new way of thinking is Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service. The service had been looking to replace its HR and rostering system for some time, but following extensive workload modelling and future business planning work recognised that a more significant change would be required to achieve the organisation and financial efficiencies sought. The reconfiguring of service delivery required a more flexible but more complex resource planning and staff rostering approach that would not be met by their current systems. The key here is that the service identified a necessary organisational change and then looked for an appropriate solution, rather than recognising a problem with its HR system and replacing it with updated software.
By taking this organisation centric approach, fire and rescue services can in turn relieve themselves from the frustrations caused by legacy systems. Our experience has shown us that it is common for fire and rescue services to hold spreadsheet databases of information, which differ from department to department. For instance one department may hold information on the outcome of a fire investigation carried out on a property but if this information is not shared across the organisation then another department may waste time, and therefore finances, by carrying out an inefficient fire safety audit because the complete historical data on the building is not available to them.
This lack of centralised information means that data collection is often duplicated, is inaccurate or incomplete, and processes are cumbersome and time consuming. Eliminating these time heavy and error prone systems, such as those based on spreadsheets or old inflexible applications, will subsequently unlock data from departmental silos and enable its dissemination across the organisation.
Breaking down these silos through one single unified platform that joins up data across the organisation means that performance can be monitored, processes automated and efficiency greatly improved. This will ensure people have the information they need to succeed in their jobs and provide the ability to make strategic decisions based on sound business intelligence.
Overcoming barriers to adoption
Despite the benefits of a business led approach to technology, this concept is still not widespread throughout the fire service. Active Solutions has worked closely with the sector for a number of years, and our experience is that whilst many are reviewing their current systems holistically, many are still addressing their replacement in a piecemeal way.
Where services are taking a more strategic approach the anticipated time investment required can create a barrier to change and to the positioning of technology as a change enabler. Although a time commitment may be required at the outset, both time and money can be saved in the long term through improving organisational efficiency and gaining true value from investment in technology.
Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS), is an example of a service which is truly approaching change from a strategic perspective. The decision to implement a new community risk management system (CRMS) to eliminate the variety of problems caused by legacy systems in individual departments was taken following a fundamental review of how the organisation wished to operate in the future.
Paul Sharples, Head of Business Intelligence & Knowledge at GMFRS explains, “It’s possible to reduce overall operating costs by consolidating technology around these products and platforms to provide an improved more efficient service. However, to do this requires a change in the way we do things and then we need a software solution that not only meets our immediate demands but also delivers world class technology which will remain flexible in the future.”
The CRMS is set to be the largest implementation in the UK fire service, and will be available to approximately 2,000 staff and used on a daily basis by many hundreds of them. It will replace several out dated legacy systems and integrate with GMFRS’s wider ICT infrastructure to provide a more centralised data management platform that increases the accessibility and security of all information relating to Fire Protection, Fire Prevention, and Fire Investigation. As the solution evolves, areas for potential further development include; Risk Information to the Fire Ground, Asset Tracking and Resource Utilisation and Scheduling.
GMFRS may be leading the way when it comes to driving forward organisational efficiency but I firmly believe that this is the start of change within the sector. After all, with financial constraints set to continue and services facing increased pressure to deliver more with less, changes must occur to ensure the long term success of fire and rescue services and safeguard the delivery of frontline services. But it is more than just the technology that needs to change; an holistic approach to the role of ICT is required to support the organisational and process change that will be the true drivers of efficiency and service improvement.