A timely move: East Sussex FRS rolls out mobile working


Philip Mason talks to Telent and East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service about how the latter’s use of Webex has helped the organisation maintain business as usual during COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a raft of changes, both across society as a whole and for those working in the emergency services.

Going back to the beginning of the crisis, for instance, the emergency services have seen a sizeable uptick in workload, on the part of control centre operators, as well as police officers tasked with helping to maintain newly imposed social-distancing rules.

At the same time, the job of protecting the public has also become markedly more dangerous, and – at certain moments – deeply unpleasant. Both of these have been illustrated by various, shameful, reports of emergency services personnel being spat at while trying to uphold the aforementioned regulations.

Needless to say, as the role of the emergency services has evolved over the past 12 months, so too has the technology which is being leveraged by public safety staff. This is apparent both on the frontline, but also in the back office, which has been undergoing exactly the same kind of ‘mobile working’ revolution being witnessed by the rest of the professional world.

As regular readers will remember, the latter is something that was talked about in the BAPCO Journal a couple of issues ago, via an interview with the National Police Technology Council’s Wayne Parkes about the increasingly widespread use of Microsoft Teams.

What wasn't covered, however, are the various processes individual organisations inevitably have to go through to onboard these new ways of working, including not only changes around the technology itself, but also wider protocols and culture. This is something that East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service is currently involved in – and has been, actually well before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic – in collaboration with Telent.

Prescient or lucky?

Duncan Savage is an assistant director for East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service. As such, he has been at the very centre of the organisation’s recent programme of fundamental change to the delivery of its IT. Key to the whole process, according to him, was the need to enable increasingly agile mobile working to support staff.

Discussing the background to the project, he says: “We took the decision as an organisation that we needed to look for alternative models of service delivery when it came to our IT. After a long and robust procurement process, we transitioned to Telent in November 2016. Prior to that we had a small in-house team, which – although they had plenty of ambition – really lacked the resources to deliver what was required.

“We believe that IT is a key enabler for us in terms of the organisation as a whole. When I look back at what we’ve achieved collectively over the last four years, we’re in a far better position than we would have been if we’d continued in-house.”

According to Savage, one of the core drivers of the new IT strategy was the organisation’s plan – eventually carried out in 2017 – to move its headquarters from Eastbourne several miles up the road, to create a joint HQ with Sussex Police in Lewes. (The organisation’s community and business safety teams moved into Eastbourne community fire station). In parallel with this, the service also began to lay the groundwork for what he describes as “more flexible working arrangements”.

Elaborating on this, Savage says: “When we started the work, desktop PCs were really the order of the day when it came to headquarters and other offices. We also probably had a couple of dozen, very old, laptops which people booked out, but really nothing that you would equate to proper mobile working. We now provide a full support package including mobile phones, VPNs… the laptop that I’m using today for this call. I think we’ve got over 300 laptops rolled out at this point.

“Part of what we did in relation to that was to identify worker styles, in order to be absolutely clear who needed what. The project was initially focused on colleagues who were part of the move from the old headquarters, which equated to something like 150 people.”

He continues: “At the same time – just before COVID-19, as it happened – we worked with Telent to roll out Cisco Webex as a tool to help us quickly switch to effective home working, as well as remote communication with each other. This was a strategic decision based on the service recognising the importance of connectivity. Those two aspects of the transformation project have really been essential in helping us to operate as a business over the course of the last 12 months.

“The way we’ve leveraged Webex has obviously included enabling people to work from home, but we’ve also staged virtual ‘events’, in order to help us carry out the democratic business of East Sussex FRS. That has included East Sussex Fire Authority meetings, panels and so on.”

As mentioned, the initial mobile working project coincided with the organisation’s move to its new headquarters in the East Sussex county town of Lewes. Little did the organisation know just how prescient the move would turn out to be, however, taking place as it did roughly two years prior to the start of the current global pandemic.

According to Savage, the latter has occasioned a further evolution in the process, with mobile working now very much the rule rather than the exception. This in turn has changed – unalterably, according to him – the culture of the organisation itself.

Discussing this, he says: “Via the initial roll-out, we’d already seen a degree of cultural change in terms of how people viewed the workplace. Post-COVID-19, however, I can’t ever see it going back to the way it was.

“Some people will want to work the bulk of their week from a centralised location because it suits them, for instance because they like having personal contact with a broader team. But people are far more comfortable working flexibly now, and that’s something we’ll continue to encourage as an organisation.”

He continues: “While some may question whether we were prescient or just lucky with the timing of the original roll-out of Webex, our investment meant that as of March last year we were in a position where virtually all of our people could work remotely. We’ve also been able to support remote training, for instance on on-call [retained duty system] stations during drill nights.”

Systems integration

Manufactured by Cisco, Webex is a cloud-based videoconferencing tool, enabling – according to the company’s website – “crystal clear audio and screen sharing” alongside an “AI powered meeting experience”. Not unlike Microsoft Teams, meanwhile, it also includes “powerful one-on-one and group messaging”, as well as “secure file sharing, two-way whiteboarding and digital spaces that allow [users] to organise conversations into workstreams”.

So, what prompted the decision to go with the technology rather than a rival solution? How easy has it been to integrate into East Sussex’s pre-existing systems?

Discussing the latter question, Telent operations and service director Barry Zielinski says: “When East Sussex first came out to tender, it was all about the broader transformation piece, which the mobile working has been integral to. That’s where we cut our teeth on this project – transforming the current network to create a platform for everything they wanted to do.

“The first part of the process was about moving East Sussex FRS onto its own private cloud platform, which is a secure hosting service, enabling the user to choose their own server. We clearly needed to move some of the organisation’s historic IT architecture, and hosting from the cloud facilitated that work.”

He continues: “Obviously we’ve been very involved in the security piece as well. We’ve helped them to align with [information security standard] ISO 27001, and they’re now looking to move to Cyber Essentials Plus, which is a government-backed cyber accreditation scheme. The security side was a big driver for going with Webex.”

As discussed, the bedrock of East Sussex’s recent IT work has been the move to mobile working. According to Savage, however, that’s just one part of the organisation’s ongoing collaboration with Telent, with subsequent projects also including enhancement of its HR and crewing system Firewatch, as well as its CRM system. The organisation is also rolling out corporate Wi-Fi.  

Elaborating on this, Savage says: “We’ve got another couple of projects through which we’re upgrading key line business systems. One of those is our use of CRM, specifically around risk information, business safety inspections and home fire safety visits. That will be key in enabling us to deliver the kind of work that government has set out in the building risk review. It’s all currently quite paper-based and inefficient.

“The other thing we’re actively upgrading is station end equipment, which will transform the resilience of our mobilising arrangements. Regarding our Wi-Fi, at the minute coverage in-station tends to just about stretch to loading bays. The corporate Wi-Fi project will help us cover whole properties.” 

Another piece of the puzzle, meanwhile, will be what the organisations involved are referring to as ‘Project 21’. This will be a ‘tri-partite’ mobilising service involving East Sussex, West Sussex and Surrey FRSs, with the control room hosted by Surrey Joint Fire Control, and technology provided by Capita. According to Savage, the work for that has been ongoing throughout the pandemic.

“That’s been stood-up and operated through lockdown, with all our partners showing amazing flexibility and commitment. It’s another area where our mobile working project has really come into its own. We’ve held any number of meetings and workshops – all of them remote – with the other two fire services, as well as our contractors.”

East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service is currently demonstrating what can be achieved through an innovative, comprehensive, IT strategy. It will be interesting to see where the organisation goes from here.

Telent will be discussing its work with East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service during BAPCO: The Online Event. Register your interest here.

Media contact

Philip Mason
Managing Editor, Critical Communications Portfolio
Tel: +44 (0)20 3874 9216