Getting the most from ESN

04/01/2022

Philip Mason talks to ESMCP senior responsible owner Simon Parr about the need to conceive of ESN beyond just push-to-talk

Your presentation at BAPCO in Coventry focused heavily on exploitation of broadband technology. Are we at the point where organisations need to start seriously thinking about how they are actually going to use ESN?

At Coventry, I wanted to communicate a very different sense around ESN, one of forward progress and something that is fast becoming a reality, for which emergency services are actively planning. It is certainly in a different state to the ‘limping along’ programme some people may have characterised it as in the past. We are close to having a final delivery plan – also known as the integrated programme plan – which we should have available within the next few months.

In my experience – over more years than I care to remember – it can take quite a long time before everyone fully embraces the capabilities of any new technology. With that in mind, I think a bit of a call to arms was timely. In the hands of innovative users, wide-ranging broadband will be an incredibly powerful tool for the emergency services.

What would you say has been people’s attitudes towards the network up until now?  

I would say that people have focused on very specific things, both in terms of ESN itself and how it’s going to be used. Their attitudes may have waned over time, wondering if ESN is coming. But it is, and that is what’s important right now.

In programmes such as this one, there’s often a big emphasis on the development of the technology itself, and that’s fine. It’s phenomenally clever stuff. However, it’s really only as clever as the people who programme it, and only as useful as the people who exploit it.

The huge mistake we often make in technology programmes is that we look at them as just that. However, it’s just as much our job to encourage people to imagine beyond just the physical technology and get people in user organisations thinking about the change ESN will bring down the line. 

The other thing for me is the way ESN has often been conceived of as revolving around just the ruggedised device and the push to-talk app when it’s going to be so much more than that.

ESN will replace the function of Airwave – however, in the future we know it will go beyond that. It has the capacity to positively impact on so many ways that emergency services communicate when incidents happen, both within their own organisations and with each other.

We’re still working with users to understand how many will use a ruggedised device and the PTT app on a daily basis, but it’s by no means all of them. All our user organisations will be using the network, however. They should be free to choose which device is most appropriate for a variety of specific roles. 

Can you go into a bit more detail regarding your view of how broadband is ultimately going to be used?

To me, ESN will ultimately become part of the broader information network. It will not simply be this standalone thing that sits ‘over there’ just using bespoke devices. Right now, we have to focus on replacing the ageing system that is Airwave, and ESN will do that.

Looking ahead a few years, however, the opportunities for collaborative working between our emergency services – and integrating our data-sharing capabilities – will be huge. 

At the moment, we have to be careful that we don’t compromise the basic and important functionality of the app. We can’t do anything that reduces its ability to work in a picosecond when someone presses the button to call for help. However, over time I firmly believe that we will develop a far broader ecosystem.

In Coventry, you suggested that accompanying the increased ability to move information, emergency services need to be braver in terms of how they use it. Can you go into greater detail about your attitude to that?

I think emergency services demonstrate a particular attitude to risk, which is absolutely appropriate in terms of the sensitivity of the data which is being handled. These organisations handle some of the most important – often literally life-saving – information, which is why it has to be done safely.

With that in mind, it’s now about making sure all our frontline workers have access to the right information at their fingertips, while also ensuring that they’re sharing it safely between each other, staying in the rules around data. ESN will make this easier than ever.

As we shift from ESN becoming an Airwave replacement to really fulfilling its potential in the coming years, organisations will have to think differently. As I mentioned earlier, this is about more than technology, it’s about taking the opportunity.

Of course, new ways of working will mean changes for our emergency services, and I’m imploring them to be forthcoming and brave – but safe – with those shifts when they happen.

You used the words ‘failure of imagination’ to describe thinking around the use of information. What needs to happen for the situation to change?

There needs to be a culture shift in the way we approach technology – and also change itself – within the emergency services. Historically the culture has seen us look at a problem in a singular way, solve it, and then move on to the next one. That is changing, and I’ve seen it change over the past decade.

However, working in a culture that’s more collaborative and forward-thinking will result in us reaping the benefits of new technology such as ESN.  

Going back to what you were saying about risk, how does the culture of organisations need to change?

Organisations need to shift the culture into one that has more ability to think laterally when it comes to technology and information. We have to think about the ways in which things can work together, rather than in a set of silos.

Emergency services have many people working in them who are highly skilled, knowledgeable and passionate about making things better. Therefore, the culture needs to become more open to listening to a range of ideas, whatever rank and background they come from, thereby allowing those on the frontline to apply their knowledge to people who use technology every day. 

If leaders understand this lateral approach, their organisations will be able to exploit the data and technology in a wholly new and different way. 

Changing the subject slightly, could you speak a little about your background [Parr is the former chief constable of Cambridge Constabulary and National Enabling Programme business change lead]? Why have you become so heavily invested in the technology piece?

For me, the discussion goes back to around 1997/98, which was when Google was invented. It was also the moment Apple distributed its first home computer, which I remember buying for 995 quid. It had a 486 chip, and a 120MB hard drive – I thought I was really rocking.

At that time, I was a superintendent, and had just been promoted to be in charge of the control rooms in Sussex. I started noticing how the control room staff worked, which was to have multiple windows open at once. If they wanted a particular piece of information, they had to look at one window, if they wanted something different, they had to look at another.

Looking at something like that as an example, it becomes obvious that we were treating information in the same way that we treat shopping. You go to one store for shoes, another one for bread. There had to be a different and better way of using technology, and indeed there was. That’s why I’ve become involved in these projects over the years.  

Regarding ESN in particular, I was the first chief constable senior user on the project. Like Doctor Who, Kier Pritchard is now three transformations on from me in the same role. 

What would you say you’ve brought to the programme since you became senior responsible owner? Why was the decision made to install someone with an operational background?

Any programme of this size has to achieve a balance between working on behalf of the government to deliver a piece of national infrastructure at a strategic level, while at the same time understanding the finer points of what the users actually need.

Focusing on milestones and budget are important but ultimately we need to make sure the system will work when a paramedic needs it at an incident at 3am in the rain. 

That being the case, having people in the programme able to represent the users is hugely beneficial. It’s essential, in fact, as we couldn’t do it without them.

At the same time, because of my years and experience in policing, I think there’s credibility there and I can work with the users if they’ve got concerns. I can see things from both sides. There’s value in having someone who can have a good conversation – from an operational background – and encourage our users to think again about something.

Having someone who appreciates the operational consequences of certain decisions probably allows us to have a more balanced conversation. That is by no means a criticism of my predecessors.

Why has that happened now, and why did no-one think of it before?

I’d say that there’s been a shift in the relationship between the Home Office and users over the last 18 months or so. For instance, the government is trying to get more alongside policing in terms of the joint delivery of things like commissioning.

It’s a logical step to blend civil servants with expertise from the outside, albeit on a case-by-case basis. It’s very much horses for courses, but it’s to the Home Office’s credit that it went looking for someone with an operational background.

Has the culture of the programme changed in the past year, specifically since the arrival of yourself and [programme director] John Black?

I’d say the influence of [interim SRO] Joanna Davinson and John Black has been immense. It has reinforced rigour and discipline around programme discipline in every possible way.

The programme was on life support for a bit, and I think the work they did – making things absolutely open and as collaborative as possible – has allowed us to build a plan that users can really buy into.

Everybody believes now that this is happening, and that there is a purpose to what they’re doing.

What would you like to see going forward? Where should UK emergency services comms be in five or 10 years’ time?

In terms of ESN, in five years’ time I want us to be coming towards the end of mass transition, with the majority on the new network. I want it to be reliable, and I want people to trust it in terms of coverage and resilience. I want everything to work.

Looking forward another five years after that, I would hope that we have set up whatever the structure is after ESN becomes business as usual. I would also hope that the app, devices and the network itself will have already been re-competed at least once to make sure that the public are getting the best value for money and the users are getting the service they want.

Going back to our earlier discussion, I also think that we will have started to broaden our horizons about how we use the information. I suspect, by that time, there’ll be some artificial intelligence working in the background, as well as more data-led deployments, automatic updates for fire or ambulance crews prior to entering a building and so on. There will be a much greater reliance on data rather than voice, and that data will be layered in every possible form.

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