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Data and decision-making potential in Fire and Rescue Services 

Fire and Rescue Services (FRS) have changed enormously over the last 10 to 20 years and yet, in some ways, have not moved on at all, says Ian Houseman. How can data and decision-making technology be of assistance?

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Creating systems for managers that can amalgamate information into decision options, helping them to make sense of growing legislative and organisational requirements to reduce risks from slow time and emergency management decisions, is the next step in supporting risk management for commanders responding to emergency incidents (Gary Killian/123rf)

Technology and standard tested personal protective equipment, which would have been considered science fiction not long ago, are now commonplace. But, in the UK, some of today’s training and operational practices would be instantly recognisable to the firefighters of 1947.

Awareness of how technology can make a significant difference to emergency management – at all levels – is being embraced by FRS around, as well as partner agencies, in many countries. The advantage of developing capabilities to gain a wider and richer picture of unfolding events speaks for itself, but we also need to see how these technologies fit into the development of working and safety.

The workplace environment is increasingly affected by regulation, legislation and other stakeholder requirements. Information management systems designed to create understanding of risk are already available – the technology exists; yet the ability to format this information to help decision-making has not been addressed at the different levels of command.

One potential development lies in collating information feeds from across the FRS and wider emergency sectors, then adding it to historical data and information to create command options analysis systems that recommend real-time options for commanders. This massive big-data analytical process would provide a set of options that are risk-rated in real time.

Advances in this area of technology, which can draw live, historical, sector and other complimentary sector information into a central assessment function, would allow organisations, managers and staff to become more informed and work in safer more effective, efficient and flexible ways.

Another key factor in making this approach achievable lies in advances in technology that drive affordability and availability.

Organisations can utilise algorithmic tools and systems that create risk-based options for decision-makers and generate value from large data libraries of events and activity. The need to create systems for managers that can amalgamate information into decision options, helping them to make sense of growing legislative and organisational requirements to reduce risks from slow time and emergency management decisions, is the next step in supporting risk management for commanders responding to emergency incidents.

The capability to reduce procurement times and training impacts, while understanding organisational competence across the complex systems and support mechanisms required to create a safe and effective workplace, is the goal of an efficient organisation. And the ability to use systems that can assimilate numerous information feeds and benchmark them in real time against actual and historic events, along with trends and data, then present decision options, could be the next step in assisting in critical decision-making in dynamic incident management.

We are working in a complex and fast changing political and regulatory environment, where public service efficiencies and flexibility are needed to meet the financial and social expectations of everyone – be they employees, the public or employers. Should events driven by factors outside the control of managers occur, the role of management and command becomes one of personal and professional risk.

Media-driven judgment in the public arena, along with digital media evidence and the growing social need to hold managers and commanders to account, are here to stay. It is likely that continued test cases of current legislation in the UK – such the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, along with future inquiries and legislation – will continue to outstrip the ability to meet the need to transform services or to address social and other risks such as severe weather, terrorism, or rising tide events, like influenza or pandemics.

The current information assessment required by managers and commanders to make decisions that will go through the retrospectoscope of social and legal judgment processes makes it highly improbable that small decisions, based on the available facts at specific points in time, will not be able to prevent later, unforeseen impacts. Examples include decisions to reduce training, short-term fixes in recruitment and decisions about equipment or PPE.

The control spans of managers and commanders to achieve this kind of decision-making in real time, assessing vast amounts of data – some of it unverified or false – means that those making decisions could be quickly overwhelmed, with the further added potential for decision paralysis to take effect.

Technology can help with assessment and present solutions for faster, better informed and auditable decision-making at the stage when the volume, speed and complexity of information is immense, while the resources or skills to achieve necessary objectives may not be available or are still proceeding to their required location.

For collating and assessing simultaneous information feeds, factoring in other key information – such as equipment, training, organisational competence, functionality of resources available, staff skills, fitness and performance, task completion – and external pressures, such as press and political interests in a fast moving social media and digital information environment, is a growing challenge that technology could mitigate. Such a system could provide options based on data, both live and historic, then present strategic and tactical options for decision-makers that could reduce the complexity of the working environment and make for improved choices.

It is possible to bring together current technology in a manner that can achieve this output, interlinking and presenting it to provide plan-based options, along with success ratings.

Within this approach, the link to other technologies offer even greater insight into the organisation’s functionality in relation to its operating environment, especially when considering the need to meet the data safety and personal information sharing legislation. That said we should look beyond these challenges to see where technology – if used, shared and managed appropriately – can make significant improvement to organisational safety and management, as well as providing more integrated ways of working in a challenging working environment.

Exploring potential opportunities for the future, and recognising that these concepts and options can move management and command to the next level of safety and efficiency, is a goal that cannot be ignored, especially within today’s growing framework and increased accountability expectations.  

Ian Houseman, 09/02/2018
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