Contingency Planning Arrangements for Industrial Action in the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service
Arrangements for Handling Emergency Calls During IA
63. The OC element of any Fire Service emergency incident is critical in ensuring successful emergency operational responses. OC personnel take emergency 999 calls that are passed to them by BT, scrutinise the details of the call to gather all relevant information, dispatch any pre-determined attendance of fire appliances to the incident and then coordinate all aspects of the logistics response on behalf of the on-scene incident commander. Normal day to day OC working provides the SFRS with a fully functional model that enables effective command and control for several concurrent incidents across Scotland on a 24-hour basis.
64. In line with the SFRS deconfliction approach, IATAG determined that OC staff choosing to work during any planned IA should operate from a non-SFRS site. Through liaison and consultation with Police Scotland, the IA OC lead officers secured the use of a facility which has much of the required command-and-control communications network infrastructure already installed. A twelve position IA OC was established and equipped. Testing of telecommunications systems was successfully completed in December 2022. We consider the arrangements that were put in place by the SFRS via the IATAG to be robust and effective.
65. Several layers of resilience were built in to ensure that emergency calls would be successfully directed to the IA OC in the event of strike action being initiated. The IA OC required four hours to set up. Emergency calls that would normally have been directed to SFRS OCs were able to be switched using alternative systems within 45 minutes. This would have meant that on a planned basis, the temporary IA OC would be set up, personnel put in place at operator desks and the telecommunications links established circa four hours prior to any IA beginning. The SFRS has a high degree of confidence that the alternative IA OC will function as planned and be able to take receipt of emergency calls and dispatch emergency response from designated AMLs as required during any IA.
66. However, the successful operation of the OC infrastructure was predicated upon the required number of skilled personnel being available to receive calls and interrogate the information provided. As no Computer Aided Dispatch system would have been available, IA OC staff would be required to select appropriate appliance(s) from those available and manage normal operational radio messages to and from the fire ground. At the time of conducting this inspection, the numbers of OC staff who were likely to work during any IA could not be accurately determined via SFRS communications processes.
67. The number of staff who had indicated that they would be willing to work during IA was below that which was indicated to us to run the required 3 or 4 shifts across any 24-four-hour period for OC operations. Had this scenario played out, there was potential for OC FDOs who elected to work during the IA being drawn into processing emergency calls with a resultant impact upon their specialist capacity to perform other critical tasks. This could have represented a significant challenge to the SFRS's ability to resource the OC over a prolonged period of IA. At the time of conducting fieldwork for this inspection, the SFRS remained actively engaged in trying to ascertain the number of OC staff who may have been willing to work during IA.
68. The SFRS's planning to address this risk included training personnel to receive emergency calls and to support OC functions in a blended approach. At the time of conducting our fieldwork, the exact number of additional staff required to carry out these functions was unclear due to unreturned communications responses from OC personnel.
69. Critical elements of the OC process such as considering and initiating any emergency appliance mobilisation or Fire Survival Guidance would only have been undertaken by trained SFRS OC personnel. We do however consider, that any potential shortfall in suitably skilled OC firefighters and officers would have presented an element of risk for the SFRS during any IA. At the SFRS IATAG meeting held on 13 January 2023, a paper was presented requesting permission to seek further personnel support from within the SFRS. This paper was supported and the work to ensure suitably skilled staff were in place to support OC operations during IA was underway.
70. The OC planned to operate a risk-based mobilising hierarchy and complementary business rules, that would determine any operational appliance response. Mobilisation would have been achieved via recognised emergency services mobilising radio systems. The SFRS OC teams have substantial experience of applying similar approaches during spate operational conditions e.g. Bonfire Night, widespread flooding etc. Training for military personnel in the use of mobilising radios was contained within the SFRS training plan for this group. It was not envisaged that this would pose a challenge for the MACA nominated military personnel who are experienced in disciplined radio procedures. On-Call station mobilisations would have functioned in a near normal manner via specially configured laptop computers that are currently in use by OC personnel in a well-practiced way.
71. OC officers remained in close dialogue with the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) Mobilising Officers Group, and highlighted novel and innovative approaches that could be considered for use during IA into the SFRS IATAG. In steady state conditions, out with IA, a 'buddy' system operates for OC functions across the UK to offer mutual support should any catastrophic call handling failure occur. The SFRS buddy is Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service. These buddy arrangements would not have been available during any IA.
72. Extensive end to end testing and exercising of the mobilising system up to receipt of calls and appliance designation for emergency response short of actual appliance movements, was conducted by the SFRS with Scottish Multi Agency Resilience Training and Exercise Unit (SMARTEU) colleagues.
73. We observed, during tabletop exercising attended by officers from across the SFRS, that a number of the solutions proposed to exercise scenarios were predicated upon BAU resources being in place. Whilst we understand work in this regard was well advanced at the time of writing, the SFRS should ensure that appropriate business rules, that set out the reality of working with reduced resource levels during IA, are fully developed for the use of all officers. Officers should be aware that BAU rules, in an operational context, would not apply during IA periods.
74. During IA, and despite planning and exercising by the SFRS and the OC teams, the OC Function would effectively have been reduced to a mobilising cell. Emergency calls would still have been able to be received and mobilisations made, but on a much-reduced scale and with an elongated time frame. To assist with the processing of emergency calls and the subsequent allocation of appropriate operational resources and capacity, the SFRS should continue to develop robust call challenging and/or call triage protocols to ensure that appropriate appliance mobilisations can be made in the event of future IA.