CONTEST 3: The importance of interoperability

The government's latest counter-terrorism strategy once again places an importance on the interoperability of the police and other agencies to respond to emergencies such as terrorist attacks. Yet, without placing a proper framework, and with constrained finances, it will be difficulty to see how interoperability will be achieved.

By Jennifer Cole, Research Fellow, Emergency Management, RUSI

It should come as no surprise that the new CONTEST strategy focuses more strongly on the need to drive forward and further improve 'interoperability':  the ability of the police and their strategic partners to work together seamlessly by getting to grips with different technology, organisational procedures and professional cultures. Reports and reviews of recent incidents have once again highlighted that interoperability, and particularly communications interoperability, is often found wanting and needs to be improved further. Most recently, the Coroner's Inquests into the 7 July 2005 London Bombings and the report into the Cumbria shootings by Derek Bird in June 2010 - both of which are referred to specifically in the Strategy - have identified lessons that need to be not only learned but also acted on if response to such incidents is to improve in future.

Training and exercising is correctly recognised as a main driver for improving interoperability. This echo the findings of RUSI's 2010 report Interoperability in a Crisis 2: Human Factors and Organisational Processes, which showed that emergency planners and responders consider the ability to train and exercise together to be the main channel through which better joint working can and should be driven forward. CONTEST is right to state, in section 9.2, 'We are also concerned that there is not yet sufficiently regular or comprehensive testing of all our emergency response plans'.

Scaling back capability

It is also correct for the strategy to state that generic responsibilities at a local level have improved in recent years. In doing so, however, is it is important to remember that these improvements have largely been made possible through programmes which have been severely scaled back and in some cases scrapped entirely since the current Government came to power. In particular, an early casualty has been the National Policing Improvement Agency's (NPIA) Interoperability Programme, which seconded subject-matter experts from the Ambulance Service, Fire and Rescue Service and non-emergency services Category 1 responders to not only discuss but also, crucially, to put into practice how different agencies should work together. With the NPIA due to be disbanded entirely in the coming months, the seconded non-police staff have already returned to their respective agencies. What remains of the programme, which will move under the remit of the new National Crime Agency, will focus on issues that largely require (with the sole exception of CBRN) police responses only.

It will now be difficult to roll out the incredibly valuable NPIA Interoperability Guidance on Multi-Agency Interoperability, -which set out the best way to use the Airwave Network (the communications network shared by all emergency responders). Take-up of its (non-mandated) guidance will be less assured. Yet adherence to such guidance would have largely prevented the communication problems that occurred during the Cumbria shootings - when too much communications traffic was transmitted over a single channel and became overloaded, rather than splitting different aspects of the operation onto different channels. It was not the network or the technology that failed (as was largely reported in the media), but the way it was used.

CONTEST also stresses the importance of 'enhancing the abilities of local responders to fulfill their warning and informing duties under the Civil Contingencies Act by ensuring new and emerging technologies ... are tested for use by responders'. Yet this is done without factoring in the public sector cuts that have led to the disbanding of the Warning and Informing subgroups of many Local Resilience Forums. The Telecommunications Sub Groups are also struggling, as members are clawed back to their respective organisations to focus on 'core duties'. When there are barely enough resources available to work with your own colleagues, it is hard to justify spending time to work with those from other organisations, though retreating into silos will only take interoperability backwards.

No coherent framework

And so it goes on. The new CONTEST strategy highlights important issues but does not attempt to set out the framework that will enable them to be addressed; this is particularly disappointing when it is a strategy, not a policy. Resilience, as the strategy acknowledges, needs to be built in a coordinated way to respond to all kinds of threats and hazards of which terrorism is just one. The fundamental building blocks of resilience must be in place so that we can respond to a terrorist incident, just as much as when it is an accidental transport accident, severe flooding or a lone gunman with a fatal grudge against his local community. Strip away the foundations and there is nothing on which lessons identified can be built.

CONTEST needs to do more than give lip-service to the importance of interoperability The strategy must enable the Home Office, and Government more widely to grasp the challenges set out and put in place robust frameworks - with the funding and structures to support them - to ensure that interoperability is taken forward and improved, and that the good work done over the last few years is not stripped away as public funding is squeezed. We can only hope that many of the precise mechanisms by which the police may seek to make improvements will be set out in more detail in the official response to the recommendations of the Coroner's Inquest into the 7/7 bombings, due to be published shortly.

In many ways, the devil is in the detail. In Annex A, the latest CONTEST strategy lists twenty-nine separate Government departments and agencies on whose interoperability successful delivery of the strategy depends. Coordinating all of them, and ensuring they operate to common standards, levels of training, equipment and technology is by no means easy. Without a framework they can fit into, it will be nigh on impossible. Interoperability is not just a concept: it should also be operational doctrine, pushed forward through funding and cross-government support that would enable the resolve, rather than the rhetoric, to make interoperability possible. Without this, the next iteration of CONTEST will echo Section 7.3 of this one which states, simply but at least honestly, 'But much more remains to be done'.



Jennifer Cole

Associate Fellow

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