After the floods: how PSN could improve emergency response
PSNGB's Neil Mellor discusses how the Public Services Network will enable agencies to transfer information securely and effectively during major incidents
With flood waters starting to recede and the long clean up commencing for those affected, the question of how the UK can better respond to or avert major incidents such as this is inevitably being raised. And with one in six homes in England prone to flooding, nearly half a million of these from the sea or our rivers, it's an increasingly significant risk.
The concept of a National Flood Emergency Framework was raised after the previous major floods in 2007 as a forward looking structure for emergency planning and response. Combining information, guidance and policies it's a common reference point for all organisations involved. But whilst it's a useful policy framework, it needs to be augmented by real-time collaboration and information sharing between those organisations to predict, prepare and respond proactively.
Often, co-ordinated local response is the key to handling emergencies or major incidents, whether floods, road accidents, fires or industrial accidents, with the police taking a lead where there are crime or public safety concerns.
Many emergency calls require several responders, from police, fire and ambulance to the coastguard, RNLI, or the other government bodies from local authorities or central agencies like the Highways Agency and Environment Agency. Today, the lead responder receiving the initial call from a distressed member of the public, often the police or ambulance, typically relays the incident details to other control rooms via the phone.
This takes time and introduces the possibility of human error through miscommunication and further re-keying. And as an incident unfolds with complex layers of often sensitive information from different sources, it becomes impossible to keep all responders fully in the picture though traditional phone, fax or even email communications.
Effective, timely, appropriate and resilient communication between all parties responding to a major incident is therefore vital. A fundamental requirement is fast and reliable information exchange without the need for intervention that gets the right information to the right people at the right time, wherever they are, enabling them to take appropriate action.
At the moment, whilst there are some local interfaces there's a lack of standardisation and the existing technology available isn't always being exploited as effectively as it could be. Some command and control or mobilisation systems can already talk to each other, for example, but with no global standards it's expensive and bespoke. What's needed is a way to standardise and automate the flow of information, so that it's published once and then pushed to the right people based on its content and priority; wherever they are and with an appropriate level of security.
There are some encouraging signs of progress on this though, with the Cabinet Office developing standards for Multi Agency Incident Transfer (MAIT). The MAIT protocol enables interoperability between different systems, meaning that control rooms and call handling centres can exchange information quickly and reliably, saving time and providing a clear understanding of the assistance required to resolve an incident.
MAIT can cut response times and the incident data exchanged between multiple agencies can be injected straight into systems, speeding up mobilisation and improving services. It can improve fall-back and resilience too, as calls are automatically logged to backup centres. Another outcome is better overall situational awareness, with a more holistic, coherent picture available to all as complex events emerge and are managed. What's more it could be developed in the future to improve safety by highlighting potential hazards to emergency responders, whether from deep floodwater, high winds, tidal surges or even armed crime suspects.
At the core of an MAIT service is a resilient data hub that acts as the 'brain', switching messages between all the organisations taking part. In a trial of Direct Electronic Incident Transfer (DEIT) in South Wales this hub based approach meant that multiple agencies could be informed very efficiently and in near real time.
DEIT was a predecessor to MAIT; the pilot enabling South Wales Fire, Gwent Police and Newport City Council to exchange information using a MAIT-type hub, with potential to grow to include all emergency services in Wales plus the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, British Transport Police, councils and the Environment Agency. Once an initial incident message was pushed to recipients' systems, further updates could be shared between all participants as required. Not only was incident handling improved, but the control rooms involved were able to take overflow calls from each other when they were overloaded.
So the principle of MAIT works well. What's needed though is a trusted, assured and resilient connectivity platform over which the service can be delivered. And because funding is scarce, a pay as you go 'cloud' hosted model would allow potential users to join and benefit from the service without having to find the up-front capital investment.
This is where the Public Services Network (PSN) comes in. Central government agencies and local government are connecting to PSN now, with fire and rescue and the police following close on their heels. As a resilient and assured multi-supplier network capable also of carrying more sensitive protected information securely, PSN removes the need for new connectivity; taking the costs of dedicated networks and encryption out of the equation. Think of PSN as being like a wire frame of connections joining up public services organisations.
As well as being the conduit for communication and collaboration, PSN can have services hung on it, available to all its members with agreed standards of assurance, resilience, availability and service built in. These common standards keep costs down and the established and open marketplace of competing service providers ensures prices are keen as well as building in resilience. PSN services can also be accessed remotely in the field using appropriately managed devices, meaning that incident responders could be in touch wherever they're working and that the latest information is directed straight to people on the front line. And if, in the worst case, the local command and control centre is disabled by flood or another incident, then PSN could connect people to a backup centre anywhere in the country, bringing national resources to bear on local problems.
So PSN can provide the foundation for suppliers to deliver services that allow multiple agencies to transfer information securely, managing major incidents more effectively and averting crises. MAIT services could be pre-connected through PSN to those organisations needing to exchange information; services they could potentially buy though the G-Cloud CloudStore without upfront build costs or the need for costly and lengthy procurement.
This is one cloud that could spell good news for the flood risk.
Neil Mellor is a director of PSNGB (www.psngb.org) @neil_2_mellor @psngb