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Tobias Ellwood MP and Mark Phillips: How to reform our emergency services

ELLWOOD-TOBIASTobias Ellwood is the Member of Parliament for Bournemouth East and Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Europe Minister.  Mark Philips is a Security and Resilience Policy Adviser.

Observe any major traffic accident, and the efficiency with which our three blue light services work together is impressive. However, if the incident is more complex and involves other agencies - such as the tragedies at Kings Cross, Buncefield, the 2007 floods or the terrorist attacks of 7/7 - persistent policy, cultural and technical shortcomings affect the ability of different departments and agencies to work together.

In responding to a major incident, the complex wiring diagram of agencies and organizations are initially coordinated through COBRA, the Government’s crisis response committee, where decisions are actioned immediately. Once this meeting breaks however, operational efficiency can erode as first responders default back to the different government ministries they serve.

Given the types of threats (both natural and manmade) we now face, it’s time for a radical overhaul of our resilience capability; from the role of the Local Resilience Forum, the basic emergency decision making unit found in every county, to COBRA at the top.

Is it right, for example that each emergency service answers to a separate Government department, automatically requiring three different Ministers and supporting civil servants, which promote independent policy agendas, logistical support and training structures, financed by separate funding streams?

Do we, in fact need both an ambulance and fire service or should we follow other nations and have a merged emergency response service? In Dorset, this is already happening to some extent. So highly trained are today’s fire crews and given their greater geographic footprint, many ambulance call outs in rural areas are actually outsourced to the Fire Service at £50 a visit.

Could we also improve procurement, training and operational coordination of the 43 police forces, 46 fire and rescue services and 10 ambulance trusts?  Indeed why are there so many constabularies and fire services when many are simply too small to justify?

In looking for some solutions to these questions, here are seven comprehensive recommendations, as to how we might improve efficiency, interoperability and save the taxpayer money:

  • Ministerial responsibility for the Blue Light Services brought into one single government department, preferably a new department of Homeland Security.
  • Creation of a single Fire and single Ambulance authority for England and Wales with hubs of responsibility based on regional boundaries.  This would act as a stepping stone towards a full merger of the two services to create an Emergency Response Service.
  • Establishment of a ‘CDS’ style Chief of the Emergency Services who sits above the Police, Fire and Ambulance authorities with a similar strategic and coordinating role.  This senior officer (and supporting staff) should be able to draw on dedicated funding to facilitate the implementation of national standards and requirements across each emergency service.
  • Establish a joint National Operations and Coordination Centre, building on the infrastructure and experience of the National Olympic Coordination Centre, which has the ability to monitor locations, move blue light assets around the country and tie into Local Resilience Forums.
  • Merger of training (to include emergency planning) for the blue light services through the creation of a National College of Emergency Service Excellence – which would cover all courses from basic (single service) training to gold commander.
  • A single Parliamentary Select Committee (possibly formed through membership of other committees) to scrutinise the work of the Blue Light Services.
  • Local Resilience Forums given a legal status, with the power to direct members and funding taken from savings made through the merger of Fire and Ambulance Services. 
Even with advances in communications and technology, traditional practices across (and to some extent within each emergency service) have resulted in a siloed mentality and convoluted web of interoperability that has deterred successive governments from attempting to consider even the smallest overhaul. Yet the longer we wait, the ever more complicated it becomes to improve inter-service procurement, training, operations and ministerial oversight.

We hope that the ideas outlined in our full report will prompt a constructive debate on how strategic, operational and financial efficiencies can be gained with simpler and stronger ministerial leadership, the streamlining of government policy formulation and unambiguous inter-agency operational command at both national and local levels.

Improving Efficiency, Interoperability and Resilience of our Blue Light Services is published today by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Homeland Security.


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