08 December 2023
Duncan Swan, chief operating officer, British APCO
A call for help is received by an emergency agency and the key details are recorded; they need to alert another agency to support the response; so, they pick up the phone and make a call. This happens hundreds of times every day and is both time consuming and prone to human error. It has been a long road within UK emergency agencies to reach a point where the network tools are available to facilitate digital incident transfer between agencies.
In May 2012, the Coroner’s Inquests into the London bombings of 7 July 2005 reviewed progress into recommendations made and observed:
‘In addition, Cabinet Office is working with the support of the Welsh Government and the Association of Chief Police Officers to pilot ‘Direct Electronic Incident Transfer’ (DEIT). DEIT enables the electronic exchange of incident logs between frontline (Category 1) responders with compatible command and control systems. The pilot, which facilitates information sharing using a central hub…. removes the need for information on incidents to be passed verbally and, using a common gazetteer (list of locations), ensures all partners are aware of the exact location of an incident… The pilot is progressing to plan, and evaluation will take place in summer 2012. Results from the pilot will be used to assess the value of further roll out.’
In 2016, this initial work metamorphosed from ‘Direct Electronic Incident Transfer’ (DEIT), which was less a hub and more of a one-to-one networking relationship, to ‘Multi Agency Incident Transfer’ (MAIT). At this point, British APCO had oversight of the requirements that met the need to share accurate information, at speed, often with many partners, during an emergency incident. Work took place with the Cabinet Office, emergency services and commercial organisations to develop a common standard for the sharing of incident information between control rooms. The outcome was development of the MAIT schema, supporting the concept of a hub networking relationship connecting many-to-many, which was approved in 2016. This is now an adopted open standard for UK government. That said, as we approach the end of 2023, the adoption to date of MAIT remains sparse - but is about to turn a very important corner.
‘On June 14th, 2017, a high-rise fire broke out in the 24-storey Grenfell Tower block of flats in North Kensington, West London, at 00:54 BST and burned for 60 hours. 72 people died, two later in hospital, with more than 70 injured and 223 escaping.
In 2020, a Home Office grant was made available to address recommendations from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, specifically in relation to the numbers of 999 emergency calls that were received by the London Fire Brigade and the limited way in which other fire control rooms were able to provide assistance – especially given the extremely limited situation awareness the supporting control rooms had. It was noted that delays in critical information being passed between fire control rooms in fast time can have a negative outcome to the overall successful resolution of an incident.’
Three specific initiatives were identified from the findings of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry by the UK Home Office and English Fire & Rescue Services to enable better, more accurate, information sharing and general awareness:
- Creation of a communications facility that allowed fire control operators to broadcast situational awareness to all fire control rooms via the digital Airwave Radio network. This was completed in 2021.
- A national 999 emergency call redistribution scheme for fire and rescue services. A National Call Distribution Scheme known as ‘Operation Willow Beck’ was introduced in 2022 and has proven itself on multiple occasions since its implementation.
- The ability to share information digitally between agencies using MAIT, the final piece of the jigsaw - and one that will bring MAIT to the fore across all emergency agencies in the UK.
Pilot MAIT implementations have evidenced that what can be a 4-5-minute average telephone call between agencies to transfer incident details can be achieved in around 15 seconds using MAIT – a key saving for a specific incident, that ensures significantly increased accuracy of information being transferred along with an action log of what happened when.
The Home Office procurement focussing on the delivery of MAIT capability recently awarded a contract for the 43 English FRS – which work through separate 33 fire control rooms – that will see every English FRS able to share incident data with other MAIT enabled agencies. Implementation will be phased – but it is being slowed down by the perceived high integration costs being quoted by Command & Control/Computer Aided Dispatch suppliers that enable a fully integrated outcome.
National Highways has a significant network of roads in England to manage and monitor – this is carried out from one National Traffic Operations Centre and seven Regional Operations Centres. To understand the scale of their operation, then in the past 12 months they have dealt with:
- 608,287 incidents
- 134,093 incidents were then transferred to the Police
- Transfer is digital using a version of DEIT to 31 police forces; by email to the other forces
- Average of 360 transfers per day
- 1,670 incidents transferred to Fire
- Transfer is by telephone call
- 1,247 to the Ambulance Service
- Transfer is by telephone call
The ability to transfer data on a one-to-one basis has provided operational benefits – but as the numbers of connections grows, it is inefficient. Adoption of MAIT has the potential to unlock several benefits including a more efficient process for adding new connections/emergency agencies – key as 33 Fire 7 Rescue Control Rooms become MAIT enabled; reduction in telephone calls to other agencies saving time to respond – and freeing up operator time; enhance speed and quality of incident transfer; improve on the road Traffic Officer response time to incidents; and ability to work smarter with more agencies to achieve common goal of public safety – which could include contractors, utilities and local authorities, as MAIT need not be confined to just emergency agencies.
There are currently two suppliers supporting MAIT services connectivity. Eviden, part of ATOS, have been delivering MAIT to multiple agencies for around 3 years; in that time, they have provided 24/7 support; ~500,000 messages have been transferred; with no downtime or failures. Their solution is based upon a National Emergency Hub – which they see as key to their MAIT solution concept – and connect individual agencies to the Hub using VPN tunnels for security. It is a simple, yet very effective networking solution.
We are finally at a tipping point where emergency agencies can digitally share time critical information. The goal moving forward must be significantly more widespread adoption of MAIT – and for it to be mandatory for all control room system suppliers. This will ensure that emergency agencies can deal more effectively and efficiently with emergency incidents involving multiple agencies, providing potentially lifesaving benefits.