When a major incident occurs, for example a flood or a terrorist attack, a range of public and private sector organisations in the location affected, must work together in order to protect human life, support the continuity of everyday activity, restore disrupted services and uphold the rule of law. This case study forms part of our digital experts resource.
The issue and context
When a major incident occurs, for example a flood or a terrorist attack, a range of public and private sector organisations in the location affected, must work together in order to protect human life, support the continuity of everyday activity, restore disrupted services and uphold the rule of law.
This activity depends not only on the skills and resources of the various individuals and organisations involved but also on good systems, processes and effective communications within and between them. Within Dorset these activities are coordinated by the Dorset Local Resilience Forum (Dorset LRF). This LRF represents the following councils and agencies:
- Bournemouth Borough Council
- Borough of Poole
- Dorset County Council
- Christchurch & East Dorset Councils
- East Dorset District Council
- Purbeck District Council
- Dorset Councils Partnership (covering West Dorset District Council, North Dorset District Council and Weymouth and Portland Borough Council)
- Dorset Police
- Dorset & Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service
- South Western Ambulance Service Trust
- Maritime and Coastguard Agency
- NHS England
- Public Health England
- The Environment Agency
- The Met Office
- HM Armed Forces
- Category 2 Responders
- Voluntary Agencies
When an emergency requiring a multi-agency response occurs, partners are alerted as soon as possible to the incident, provided with key details and the action requested, so that they can begin to work together to bring about a safe conclusion. Historically, this action was initiated by Dorset Police but in January 2015 the Dorset LRF set up a Civil Contingencies Unit (CCU) to improve multi-agency working and subsequently the declaration of a major incident can be notified to partners either by the police or by the CCU. Operation LINK is the name given to this activation process.
However, in its original form, Operation LINK was not without its issues:
- There was no electronic system in place to assist the lead agencies, either Dorset Police or the Civil Contingencies Unit, in contacting other agencies within the Dorset LRF. This therefore required the physical calling of each agency by telephone.
- Even relatively simple incidents might necessitate the bringing together of between 15 to 20 partners.
- Some partners do not have 24/7 call-out capability and therefore it might be necessary to attempt to call these agencies several times before someone was reached. During the timespan of an incident there may be the need to coordinate partners and share information by the use of teleconferencing. However, because of the difficulties in contacting partners there have been occasions when some individuals have not taken part.
- An Operation LINK call to an agency was inevitably going to lead to a request for further explanation, especially from regional or national agencies like the Environment Agency, South Western Ambulance Service Trust, Maritime and Coastguard Agency and Public Health England, especially out of hours when the person receiving the call was unlikely to be an emergency planner. This extended the time taken to complete Operation LINK. Dorset Police is usually involved in the major incident itself so is under extra pressure to provide further resources at a time when the incident is already drawing heavily on their staff and time.
- If one individual attempted to complete Operation LINK (with say 15 agencies) it would take at least 1.5 hours - if all went well. However, given the difficulties that inevitably arose, in trying to get the right information to the right individuals, then it is likely to take up to 3 hours. In order to mitigate this delay, it was usual practice to involve more people in the process and this could mean up to 5 people each taking between 20 or 30 minutes.
- Any callout that took between one and a half and three hours, and was this onerous, had the capability to compromise the timeliness of an effective multi-agency response resulting in: lives being put at risk; the full complement of agencies not coming together; time wasting through repeated discussions.
- Throughout the major incident, effective communication was hard to sustain as each time a piece of information needed to be shared, it required someone physically having to ring the number of agencies that required the update. During the severe weather 2013/14, some agencies missed teleconferences for this reason.
The project objectives and targets
The Digital Experts Project proposed the introduction of an automated call cascade system that would assist the partners involved in the Dorset LRF to communicate effectively, before, during and after a major incident.
In the event of an emergency or disruptive challenge (such as the flooding that occurred during winter 2013/14), local councils very often take on major or leading roles as they become involved in dealing with the displacement of people, the setting up of call centres and rest centres and the delivery of other humanitarian assistance of this nature and scale.
Flooding in the Dorset village of Burton Bradstock An area identified for change in the major incident process was the current procedure by which partners were alerted and activated in response to a major incident. This technology would address this gap.
In a number of incidents over the last 3 years, the activation process had been identified, by those involved, as an area of weakness. It was time consuming and not always effective. Organisational resource changes had made it impossible in some areas to maintain 24/7 rotas and therefore reliance on call cascades had increased, adding additional pressure.
The Digital Experts funding would allow the Dorset LRF to:
- Procure a cascade system with sufficient licences to operate across the LRF
- Train staff in the use of the system
- Procure some project management and administrative support to ensure that the project was successfully implemented.
The benefits of utilising a cascade system had been demonstrated within individual agencies and partnerships elsewhere, particularly the use by the Environment Agency in convening a teleconference of partners to discuss actual or potential flooding (known as FASTCON – Flood Advisory Service Teleconference).
Having an automated cascade system would assist in:
- Developing a process for sharing and receiving notification of incidents and emergencies that affect all partner agencies within the Dorset LRF
- Providing regular and frequent updates/bulletins on the Dorset LRF, and regional and national activity
- The timely distribution of invitations to meetings/conference calls to the correct recipients
- The recording of information that had been sent or received by an agency. This would assist where any subsequent inquiry whether judicial, public or otherwise might be necessary
- The maintenance of the C4 principles – command, control, co-ordination and COMMUNICATION up and down the command structure as well as sideways during a major incident
- Enabling partner agencies to make amendments to their own call-out arrangements by permitting them to log in to the product and edit their own callout details
- Providing a highly reliable messaging infrastructure that was the fastest, simplest and most reliable way to send important information to large numbers of people at the same time.
- Providing a resilient and robust emergency notification system that would allow contact whatever form of communication recipients used
- Providing short response times and rapid coordination of a workforce in the event of an emergency through instant information alerts and updates
- Warning and informing personnel during the course of an emergency
- Ensuring a reliable and high percentage contact rate as the system would operate on both pager and mobile networks
- More resilience in the communication network through the use of both pagers and mobiles (for voice and text) and emails
- More collaborative working in terms of information sharing
- Standardising messages received by organisations, especially during Operation LINK, that would carry with them the explanation and details of actions to be taken for the benefit of the person receiving the call, avoiding a need for verbal explanations at the time of crisis
- Enabling contact with voluntary agencies and utilities during a major incident - which is notoriously problematic - by adding their details for the duration of the incident, with easy removal when it was complete.
Partnership working is built on good working relationships and practices as well as good systems and processes that enable the effective multi-agency response and co-ordination by the Dorset LRF. The project management time would allow the creation of a fit-for-purpose system, embedded into the activation process and regularly tested across organisations.
In addition to its primary use in response to major incidents, the system can also be utilised by individual member organisations for their own purposes (e.g. internal resilience, business continuity etc.) at no extra cost.
The approach and progress to date
Following a procurement exercise, Bournemouth Borough Council purchased the Send Word Now system in April 2016. This is a notification system capable of transmitting tens of thousands of voice and text messages in minutes, while providing a full audit trail, whether in an emergency or for ‘routine’ messages.
After installation the system was subjected to two full scale tests, on 24 May 2016 and on 11 July 2016. The system worked well but organisational problems (e.g. incorrect contact details) were encountered during the first test and resolved before the second. The system has now been implemented across the Dorset LRF as the Dorset Prepared Alerting Service (DPAS).
This system allows organisations to maintain their own contact lists so that individuals can be contacted via landline telephone, mobile phone, SMS, email, fax or pager. The system supports multiple contact lists and at the click of a button allows a single message to be sent to everyone on that list.
The system also allows the calling agency to monitor the status of the communications (e.g. whether an email was successfully delivered or a phone answered).
The outcome – successes and challenges
Although the main aims of this project were related to operational efficiency rather than financial concerns, the two aspects are clearly inter-related. When major storms cause flooding and damage the cost can run into many millions of pounds. For example, Bournemouth Borough Council spent around £373,000 on the immediate emergency response following the flooding and storms during the winter of 2013/14 with subsequent expenditure dealing with the clean-up and long term repair costs running into hundreds of thousands of pounds. Clearly, a fast response to such an emergency will not prevent a disaster but could help to reduce its impact (e.g. through the erection of temporary flood barriers and other protective measures) and hence deliver substantial financial savings to individuals, businesses and the public infrastructure (e.g. roads, bridges etc.).
In addition, there have been a number of direct financial benefits, totalling almost £40,000, arising from the approach taken to the project as a result of the Digital Experts Programme.
The service level agreement between Send Word Now Communications Inc. and Bournemouth Borough Council is for £7,552.50 (a three-year contract) and can be used as an estimated cost incurred if each interested organisation within the Dorset LRF (currently five) wanted to procure a digital call cascade software tool. At present, the five organisations wishing to use the call cascade software for their own internal resilience purposes are as follows:
- Dorset & Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service
- Dorset Police
- Christchurch & East Dorset Councils
- Purbeck District Council
- Dorset Councils Partnership (covering West Dorset District Council, North Dorset District Council and Weymouth and Portland Borough Council).
If each organisation had individually procured the software this would have been an additional cost of £37,762.50 – a cost which this Digital Expert project has allowed the councils to avoid.
As the service is yet to be fully tested ‘in anger’ in response to a major incident, the points below are estimated indicative savings based on the testing of the Dorset Prepared Alerting Service which was undertaken on the most frequently used multi-agency coordination service – Operation LINK.
Previously this process was undertaken manually by either Dorset Police and/or the Dorset Civil Contingencies Unit. On most occasions an individual officer would have to call between 15 and 20 recipients, a process which could easily surpass an hour and a half even if the right recipient answered, there were no hold ups and the contact number given was correct. In reality it might take twice this time. (It should be noted that during some incidents this 8 task might be shared by a number of officers, rather than a single individual, which would reduce the elapsed time but not the effort required.)
Taking a salary plus on-costs (e.g. pension contribution, national insurance, office costs etc.) of £30 per hour this generates a saving of approximately £90 every time the system is used. If the system is used for major incidents, minor incidents and other organisational requirements (e.g. for organisations’ own business continuity plans) then it may be used up to 50 times a year giving an estimated time saving equivalent to approximately £3000 per annum.
“Local authorities have an important role to play supporting their communities in an emergency, so when the unexpected happens, it is really important that the appropriate agencies are notified quickly and clearly. Bournemouth Borough Council was therefore very pleased to receive the funding through the digital experts programme on behalf of the Dorset Local Resilience Forum to be able to introduce a technological solution for quickly and efficiently calling out multi-agency emergency responders across the county. The new system will free up police officers and other responding officers so they can concentrate on dealing with the emergency and provide a timely, joined-up response.” Bournemouth Borough Council Chief Executive, Tony Williams.
The primary aim of the project and the key benefit that it delivers is a reduction in the time and effort needed to launch a coordinated response to a major incident. A quick and effective multi-agency response to such an incident will protect human life, support the continuity of everyday activity, restore disrupted services and uphold the rule of law.
‘The use of the Dorset Prepared Alerting Service will enable all partner agencies of the Dorset Local Resilience Forum to be quickly alerted to an anticipated or actual incident.’ Ian Brown, Force Command Centre Training Officer, Dorset Police
The time saved during major incidents will allow officers to work on other tasks such as the setting up of a Tactical Coordination Centre and/or gathering and disseminating further information.
‘The real benefit of this system is that it is allowing people to get on with their front-line job rather than performing administrative tasks at a moment when time is of the essence.’ Matt Weller, Project Manager, Dorset Civil Contingencies Unit
Testing of the Dorset Prepared Alerting Service showed a high success rate in the contacting of partner organisations. Those organisations who fail to respond can now be quickly highlighted and followed up more easily. Such improved technologies will enhance communication and information sharing before, during and after emergency incidents within the Dorset LRF and will be especially useful for enabling attendance at teleconferences.
The system also enhances the culture of collaborative working and information sharing.
‘The Dorset Prepared Alerting Service has proved to be an invaluable tool in managing our business continuity management teams and operational response staff. Not only will the tool save time in the callout of staff, it will also enhance the information shared during incidents, ensuring staff receive the most up-to-date information.’ Jonathon Ross, Property, Engineering and Car Parks Manager, Christchurch and East Dorset Councils
‘With the Dorset Prepared Alerting Service, everyone gets the same information at the same time. It saves time because this method removes the “just one more question response”, which limits the number of calls that can be made manually’ Jennifer Cutler, Head of the Dorset Civil Contingencies Unit
Key learning points
The introduction of the Send Word Now system has proven to be a success but that does not mean that the exercise was without challenges.
Difficulties arose from the large number of individuals and organisations with differing views and processes that needed to be involved in the procurement. The coordination of this group took longer than anticipated and resulted in delays to the project.
Another level of complication was introduced because the preferred solution selected during the tender exercise was produced by an American company. This might not seem to be problematic but there was a degree of interpretation required – e.g. insurance terms such as Public Liability and Professional Indemnity have different interpretations. This resulted in further delays.
The project also encountered legal issues because the CCU, who were leading the procurement, are not a legal entity. Consequently, Bournemouth Council had to act on behalf of the Dorset LRF.
Finally, care had to be taken over Data Protection because the organisations were sharing contact information of individuals. However, the system has sufficient security to accommodate this.
The key message arising from these difficulties revolves around getting people involved early on, e.g. partners, insurance, legal, IT etc., rather than just hitting a problem and then involving them.
Although a process such as this can seem to be daunting and time-consuming the effort is worthwhile.
‘If you don’t have an automated call-out system, get one!’ Matt Weller, Project Manager, Dorset Civil Contingencies Unit
At the time of writing, Dorset LRF have been fortunate because they have not had to utilise this system in response to a major incident. Perhaps when such an event does occur and the system is used in the circumstances for which it was designed, there will be lessons learnt and improvements considered.
However, in the meantime a number of further actions are either planned or being discussed:
- Phase 2 of the implementation will allow partners to use the system within their own organisation, e.g. business continuity response
- Organisations can act as a proxy for non-members (e.g. the airport)
- The system can also be used for: o pre-event planning – e.g. if bad weather is forecast o organising events – e.g. festivals, air shows etc.
- There are other facilities that as yet have not been used and need further investigation – e.g. the teleconferencing bridge.
The ability for partnering organisations to store contact information within the software will be offered to partners when they take up the software for their own resilience purposes and will reduce the laborious task of manually updating and maintaining contact directories, as the software allows and prompts users to manually self-update their contact credentials. Each agency will be entitled to up to 100 stored recipients, with further recipient spaces available upon request.
The Dorset Prepared Alerting Service is also envisaged to be an integral part in the call-out of voluntary sector staff. The service is capable of storing each voluntary organisation’s staffing lists and can therefore be activated when a wider voluntary response is required to an incident.
It is intended that the software will greatly improve collaborative working and information sharing not only in the initial notification phase but also on an on-going basis – informing agencies to respond to situation report requests, tasking of officers, responding to requests for assistance, etc.
The software is also intended to be used as an information sharing pool before, during and after incidents – ensuring partnering organisations are kept up-to-date.
ADDENDUM: On Wednesday 23rd November 2016, the DPAS was successfully used to inform partner organisations of an unexploded ordnance in the Corfe Mullen, Dorset area. The software ensured messages were disseminated quickly to partners via multiple communication channels through voice and text; utilising telephone landlines, mobile telephones, pagers and email accounts. This ensured a strong representation for the incident’s teleconference, which shortly followed the notification alert.
For further information about this project please contact:
Matt Weller Civil Contingencies Officer Dorset LRF
Telephone 01305 229044
Mobile 07899 770541
CCU Offices Dorset Police HQ Winfrith Dorset DT2 8DZ