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The use of data and digital has been described as game changing (see FIRE magazine March pg 8) and we often hear about digital transformation. But what does that mean for the Fire and Rescue Service? Speaking with CFO Andy Hopkinson, the NFCC’s digital and data lead, he sees data as fundamental to the growth of the service, certainly in terms of evidencing contribution – not least during the pandemic response – whilst also shoring up support for future spending reviews. The Home Office points to the police model of evidencing what they do and creating a cohesive narrative on the greater contribution to society. Traditionally found wanting in this regard, is the Fire and Rescue Service set to up its game? Andy, irrepressibly upbeat by nature, is confident the service can make great gains.
CFO Andy Hopkinson took over as Programme Executive for the Digital and Data Programme from Devon and Somerset CFO Lee Howell and in our conversation chose to focus primarily on data. “If we want to empower our services to innovate and really drive sustainable change, we need to exploit our data to evidence what we’re already doing and demonstrate the potential of what the fire and rescue service could be contributing to UK plc, given the opportunity. I was having a chat with Peter Holland [Chief Inspector for the Crown Premises Fire Safety Inspectorate] earlier today. He’s very passionate about the importance of demonstrating the economic and social cost of fire to government and other stakeholders and the need for robust data to underpin this. I’m not going to quote you loads of statistics and prove what that looks like now as there is some great work going on within the NFCC on this very topic. However, there’s also the important consideration around evidencing the economic and social value of the Fire and Rescue Service contribution in what we already do in terms of our core services of prevention, protection and response, but also demonstrate our potential to diversify our offer and contribute in different ways that reduce risk and improve public safety.”
Representing Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service (BFRS) on countless multi-agency strategic co-ordinating groups throughout the pandemic highlighted to Andy the merits of bringing together contrasting data sets allowing partners around the table to view the vulnerabilities of ‘Jo Bloggs of the High St’ through the different lens of fire, health, policing and local authority partners. “We underestimate how rich and how valued our data is and how providing more opportunities to share datasets with a common goal of making our communities safer will be a real game changer.”
He cites the work of Ged Devereux, the NFCCs Health lead, in brokering a data sharing agreement with the National Health Service as a great example of how layering FRS incident data over NHS data will enable enhanced targeting and risk assessments of people and places for fire and rescue services, “but in return they [health partners] are going to get access to our incident data because that will enhance their own assessment of risk through the health lens. That’s just one example where exploiting data could be game changing.”
The fire sector and research community has been obsessed with the social and economic cost of fire in recent years without anyone coming up with a fully inclusive plan to outline an accurate picture, other than hinting at seismic figures that dwarf the understanding of the scale of the problem. It is therefore encouraging that ‘cost’ is considered but ‘value’ is being prioritised.
“What we’re trying to do in the Digital and Data programme is to support the sector in evidencing what we do, in order to demonstrate the value proposition of the Fire and Rescue Service to society, which can then be used to maintain and attract future investment in the sector and allow us to diversify to keep pace with the evolving needs of society.”
CFO Andy Hopkinson says the Digital and Data programme will support the sector
Andy elucidates on this by highlighting how his own service has contributed to ‘UK plc’ by supporting the East of England Ambulance Service Trust (EEAST) during the pandemic. An evaluation undertaken with support from the Home Office data analytics team, Dr Rowena Hill from Nottingham Trent University (NTU), and CFO Roger Thomas of Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service, has evidenced how the support provided to EEAST by BFRS across five key areas (seconded firefighters, co-responding, bariatric/complex patient rescue and effecting entry) during the pandemic has been highly effective in reducing demand on the ambulance service, reducing response times and improving patient outcomes, ultimately saving lives, he says.
In monetary terms, the analysis showed that for every pound invested in the support to EEAST, UK Plc receive seven pounds in return. The data also showed that, in 2020-21, EEAST were able to meet all its category 1 life threatening incident response standards in the Bedfordshire area for the first time since 2010. EEAST also reported the third best performance in England within their seven-minute target during the same period. More than 70 per cent of patients attended by the BFRS Falls Team did not require a hospital admission.
Apollo Gerolymbos, Andy Hopkinson and Steve Beakhust
Nevertheless, it has not been plain sailing: “Initially we were playing catch up and it was a bit painful collecting and validating the necessary data from across two organisations, some of it retrospectively.” But Andy points to how it has “oiled the wheels of collaboration in other areas with EEAST and the report has been used to influence dialogue at a national level”. He stresses that it is not entirely centred on monetary considerations, but it is important to extrapolate what the social value is as it’s these metrics ‘money talks’ to when influencing dialogue on a national level. At the beginning of the pandemic it was all hands to the pump, but “then it was like, well, how can I use this experience to showcase what we’re doing? How do I play back to staff, to the public, to partners, to government, the added value, the ‘why?’ and the ‘so what?'” The data gave Andy the confidence to say: “There are, undoubtedly, people walking the streets of Bedfordshire today were it not for the amazing BFRS staff who stepped up and dared to be different during the pandemic.”
Although Andy admits that “we’ve got to get our data house in order,” he goes on to talk about the pros and cons of data warehouses and data lakes before pulling himself back to what it all means: “Enabling us to connect and evidence the ‘so what?’ impact of what we do and, importantly, what we could be doing given the right opportunity.”
Outlining how he has refocused the data element of the NFCC’s Digital and Data Programme into five key strands [see above], Andy simplifies and condenses the key issues: “Do we have a clear strategy for data within fire and does it align with that of other stakeholders such as the Home Office?” What standards are we trying to follow? How and where do we collect all this data at a national level? Is there a smarter way of doing it? And then how do we best work together to analyse and fully exploit these rich datasets? Finally, we need to engage and motivate both internally within the sector (such as our data analyst community) and externally with partners and suppliers, promoting what we do and the ‘art of the possible’ and seeking out opportunities to collaborate wherever it can add value.”
This approach has helped Andy to better understand and help influence what the data strategy is for the fire sector within the Home Office and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS), helping ensure we are all pointing in the same direction. “We’ve hosted some national stakeholder workshops bringing some bright minds from the NFCC, Home Office, HMICFRS and individual services together. We now have broad alignment in terms of where we want to go, but my view is we need to write that up a little more clearly and make it more visible within the sector and wider stakeholders.”
In terms of standards, the Digital and Data Programme team has been working with the Fire Standards Board to develop the first data management and governance standard, which is currently out for consultation, ensuring consistency in data collection.
A key outcome from the national stakeholder workshops is securing agreement for the NFCC and HMICFRS to collaborate on a project led by the Home Office to procure a National Fire Data Collection System (NFDCS), which he describes as “one big national fire bucket that we can put all our data into” that will initially prioritise the scope of the datasets currently captured by the national Incident Recording System (IRS). The ambition of the project is to consolidate, standardise and improve the collection of incident data in the first instance, followed by a transformation phase expanding the scope of the system to collect other national level fire datasets in areas such as prevention, protection and workforce, “but in a way that is agnostic of the data sets being collected and, importantly, scalable in any direction without costing a million dollars to change a font on the home page!”
Having all the data in a big national ‘bucket’ will be a great step forward, but Andy stresses the importance of not only having the right data but having the right capacity and capability to analyse it effectively, helping translate it into the sort of insight that will help answer the strategic ‘so what?’ questions that will influence the strategic direction and protect and secure investment in the fire and rescue sector.
“That’s where recruiting the right people with the right skills is crucial and I’m very grateful to London Fire Brigade for releasing Apollo Gerolymbos (see next issue for his paper on data) to the Digital and Data Programme as fulltime NFCC Data lead.” Already a well-respected specialist in his field, Apollo now has the capacity to help drive a number of key projects forward at pace, with a focus on delivering some “shiny, tangible widgets” that will demonstrate the “art of the possible” and “hopefully secure further investment in the programme.” He is also leading the development of the NFCC’s central data analytics capability and, being full time, can invest more time ensuring the data voice of the NFCC is being heard in other forums across government and the private sector.
Ably supported by Programme Manager Steve Beakhust and his team, the programme has high aspirations, acting as “dare I say, almost as a consultancy and source of advice to individual services. If they’re looking to build something or they want it to grow or move into a new area, we can signpost to good practice. Or if they need to recruit somebody into a team, we can help them understand whether they need a data analyst, rather than a more expensive data scientist, for example.
“And then finally, we need to promote, collaborate, motivate, engage, not just the community of analysts that we’ve got in the sector, but also to market what we’re doing with stakeholders across government, the international fire community and the private sector.”
It is anticipated that next month’s inaugural NFCC fire data conference (Data Intelligence: Shaping the Future for Fire on June 13-14 in Liverpool (for more information visit: www.nationalfirechiefs.org.uk/NFCC-Events) will get the conversation going and for Andy it will be about “engaging, motivating, encouraging people to work together and getting the ‘art of the possible’ message out there.” Designed to attract the specialist “and the non-specialists like me,” he says that this will be something of a catalyst as there is a lot more to do “and arguably the work of the digital and data programme underpins pretty much everything the sector is trying to do… Everybody wants data and everyone wants a digital solution.”
For the time being, Andy is focusing on delivering those “shiny, tangible widgets”, triaging the numerous requests for support. “I’ve got to almost demonstrate the value of what we’re doing in order to secure more investment in the programme.” Part of that is about tapping into the expertise of people such as Dr Rowena Hill of NTU and Dr Sara Waring of Liverpool University to better understand how academia and research can contribute to the programme.
Functions of the national data analytics capability will include:
Andy’s Digital and Data team is supporting the NFCC’s Community Risk Programme, which aims to reduce community risk and vulnerability by delivering a set of national tools and guidance to improve risk management planning. Work is well underway to understand their data requirements and “how we can connect you to other non-fire datasets? It’s about being a relationship broker as well and how best to connect people and organisations together.”
Another consideration is understanding the data needs of the NFCC’s People programme as the sector strives to recruit and retain the diverse talent it needs to succeed amongst an increasingly challenging labour market. “We also need to understand what the data requirements are in terms of the procurement pipelines, so we can work with industry to understand what in the next five to ten years services are looking to buy, giving confidence to suppliers to invest in research and development of products the sector needs in the future, whilst realising efficiencies through collaborative procurement.”
I ask Andy whether he is encouraged by what other services are doing and if there are examples of best practice his team are picking up on. Whilst data literacy levels are inconsistent, he adds “absolutely. There are numerous pockets of good practice out there,” stressing the value of the NFCC Data Portal developed and supported by West Midlands Fire Service. Working on the NFCC Covid Committee under the leadership of CFO Phil Garrigan, Andy points to the value of the NFCC Data Portal and how it was developed in a really agile way to improve shared situational awareness across services of the impacts of the pandemic on workforce absence rates and levels of PPE stocks, which could be aggregated up and inform discussions at a national level. It also enabled the NFCC to showcase how services had adapted their skills and capabilities in new ways such as administering over half a million Covid vaccinations.
So where is the UK Fire Service in terms of data literacy? Andy is typically upbeat: “There is definitely more to do, but I’m not going to say we’re miles behind because I think in many ways we compare very well to other fire services around the world.” He points to at least one country that has used the data collected by London Fire Brigade on e-scooters and lithium-ion battery fires to determine their own national prevention and response policies.
“We need to take a much broader view than just fire data,” Andy maintains, as he repeatedly tries to reign in his excitement about the future direction and potential that investing in data analytics present for the Fire and Rescue Service. “We are just one slice of the public safety pie and we need to connect and layer many different data sets for us to properly assess the risk and vulnerabilities within our communities to develop a more rounded view of how we can work together with partners to reduce that risk and vulnerability.”
The contribution can go much further, Andy suggests, pointing to the government launching its latest drugs strategy, which focuses a lot on prevention and working with young people. He highlights how the Fire and Rescue Service already do some amazing work working with children and young people. He asks whether there is an opportunity to evidence how we can deploy our skills and experience to support delivery of the national drugs strategy. “It’s about saying, how can we use data to evidence our own work in this area and the ‘so what’ impact it has had to connect with the police or other parts of government, to say ‘hey, fire has got a part to play in this… and here is the evidence that shows the impact we have already made in a slightly different context’.”
Translating that potential and developing the narrative is part of Andy’s strategic intent and one that FIRE would be pleased to support. “We need to become a much more integrated public service,” Andy stresses.
So how will data be used to drive what services do in future, what it will look like? I put it to Andy that we could be talking about a Community Risk and Resilience Service if the declining ‘fire’ factor is measured.
Andy is frank in his assessment: “It could go one of two ways. Whichever it is, we want to be data-driven and evidence-based in our decision-making rather than ‘that sounds like a good idea’. As a CFO, I need the right data and insight because money is always going to be a bit of a squeeze. And if I wanted to secure more investment in what we’re doing, particularly when considering diversifying into new areas of work, it needs to be based on robust, quality data that doesn’t delay the decision, doesn’t delay innovation, but does helps us create that cohesive narrative that convinces our staff and our partners that we can take the Fire and Rescue Service forward in a confident and agile way and we can deliver a tangible return on any investment.”
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