How Hampshire fire services is using its WAN for new shared services
Hampshire fire service's WAN small step means giant leap for collaboration
Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service's IT chief Neil Moore tells Gill Hitchcock how its WAN will underpin the organisation's command and control developments
With its recently installed WAN now bedded in, Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service is now looking at what new systems the network can be used to underpin - and whether they can be shared.
In the aftermath of the abandoned FireControl project, an initiative to replace England's 46 emergency call centres with nine regional sites, the fire and rescue service is looking to team up with neighbouring fire services to procure a new command and control system.
"We are one of a number of fire and rescue services that have rather ageing command and control systems. When FireControl was cancelled, we were in a position where we looked to procure a new command and control system for ourselves," Neil Moore, Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service's head of IT, says.
Hampshire is considering purchasing a shared service with Dorset, Wiltshire and Devon & Somerset. If the procurement goes ahead, it will follow a 2011 announcement by Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service signalling collaboration with five north-west fire authorities that will see their control room functions transferred to a single centre in Warrington. Separately, Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Cheshire also voted in favour of a shared control room project last year.
"We have not gone out to tender yet, but it looks like the aim of the procurement is for us to collaborate and there is a possibility that we would have a shared service for the four partners," says Moore.
The four potential partners are still working things out, but a possible outcome could be a single command and control system and two datacentres.
"You need a solid infrastructure behind you to enable you to do that", he says with Hampshire's PSN infrastructure potentially used to underpin the project.
Hampshire began its move to PSN in 2009 after the county council and 16 partners including the fire service signed a framework contract with Virgin Media Business.
The fire service had been looking to replace its WAN and to cut its network costs, and using the framework, procured a PSN-compliant WAN, the roll out of which was completed in March 2011. While the level of the fire service's investment has not been disclosed, Moore says the fire service's WAN will generate £60,000 a year in cost savings.
The WAN replacement grew out of the fire service's need to tackle its growing demand for bandwidth, not least from the fire safety department, whose staff use laptops during inspections and home safety visits to record information and send it back to back office systems.
The network also helps the department to generate a "risk map", by feeding information about the location of dangers, such as acetylene tanks in garages or workshops. Moore says this gives the force a county-wide picture the risks firefighters will face when they respond to calls.
"There is a whole rage of mechanisms by which we are carrying out our front end business via IT these days, whereas three years ago we were not," says Moore.
Now, Hampshire's fire engineers can receive information updates on risks while they are in fire stations via mobile data terminals. The information cannot be transmitted while the fire engines have left the station, however.
"That will be the next step. At the moment it is synchronised in the stationÃƒ¢Ã¢€š¬Ã‚¦ because of the reliability of wireless technology," says Moore.
"It is improving all the time, but the problem we face is that wireless communications are not always readily available.
"Although Hampshire is not untypical in that we have rural areas and mobile phone coverage is not brilliant in a lot of the county, so there are a number of challenges in terms of providing that sort of data connection."
The WAN connects 52 sites, including 51 fire stations and the headquarters in Eastleigh. Wider connections include another 16 partners including Hampshire county council, Southampton city council, Portsmouth city council and Basingstoke and Deane borough council.
The PSN-compliant network is also aiding partnership working across the country. The service's fire setters intervention team, for example, works closely with children's services at the county council in relation to juveniles involved in arson. "We have a secure connection because, as you can appreciate, it is fairly sensitive information which is being shared between our intervention team and the children's services," he says.
More joint services are also in the offing: in January 2012 fire chiefs from Hampshire and Kent agreed to develop videoconferencing, underpinned the PSNs in the two counties. The two counties piloted videoconferencing links in major incidents a year ago, under a Cabinet Office 'pathway' project "and we are now looking to build on that and develop videoconferencing further within the region," says Moore.