Discovery Phase Summary Report


The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) set out a strategic objective to maximise the value of digital solutions to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the fire and rescue service. The Digital and Data Programme (DDP) was established within the NFCC’s Central Programme Office to research and deliver on how this could be achieved.

The DDP started with a discovery phase to gather insight on what it means to digitally transform an organisation and how this can help the NFCC achieve its objective. This report summarises the methods and key learning points of the discovery phase and outlines the next steps for the DDP in developing effective digital solutions for fire and rescue services.

Identifying problems

The discovery phase began with online research, attendance at digital events and consultation with people experienced in the field of digital and data. A wealth of guidance on digital transformation and good digital practice across sectors was uncovered in this process. Examples of sources include the Government Digital Services blogs, the Open Data Institute and Nesta’s Government Innovation team.

Throughout the discovery process, several engagement events brought together FRS staff and technology experts in collaborative environments to help build the picture of what a digitally transformed FRS should look like, what our current digital and data capabilities are and how we might improve them.

Sandbox session

The first of the engagement events was a sandbox session that brought together 20 people from a range of public and private organisations to discuss what a digital programme for the FRS could look like. This event covered high-level topics ranging from developing a data culture within the FRS to why a digitally skilled FRS is beneficial and how and over what timeframe it could be achieved. Takeaways from the sandbox event and prior research enabled the project to define three high-level core problems to shape the focus and structure our discovery phase.

Core problems:

  1. We don’t know what digital transformation is taking place in each fire and rescue service
  2. We don’t think we’re making the most of all the data that we have
  3. We don’t know what a digitally transformed fire and rescue service should look like in the future

We know that these three digital and data-related problems could apply to any organisation, but we are focused on fire and rescue service specific problems. We are also aware that there are potential disruptors that could affect fire and rescue services in the future, such as emerging technologies that affect behaviours and interactions by and with the public. Horizon scanning is therefore an important aspect of the DDP’s work.

Problem 1: We don’t know what digital transformation is taking place in each fire and rescue service

The NFCC represents 50 different fire and rescue services (FRS), each with its own existing activities, priorities and ideas for how to better use data and technology to improve its service. To better understand the current digital landscape within the FRS, the DDP held an unconference event in Birmingham.

An unconference is a conference without an agenda. Attending delegates are invited to offer their own content and discussion points to structure the day and guests are free to choose which discussions to join and move between. The aim of the unconference was to establish a baseline for the current digital capabilities and initiatives underway within the fire and rescue services. Approximately 50 self-described ‘digital disruptors’ from across the UK fire and rescue services attended the day to talk about the role of digital technology, current digital initiatives, and ideas and plans for the future. Attendees were encouraged to share ideas, gain feedback and look for collaboration opportunities within the group.

There was good participation on the day, with a wide variety of topics being discussed, as summarised in figure 1 below. A common theme that connected many of these stories was the importance of using data to guide decision making in the services. The unconference also proved to be an effective means to establish channels of communication and areas of common interest across fire and rescue services.

1 Join up data from control to that on incident ground

Claire Hursell

How do we know what works?

Alex Rhodes

Building open source community for fire

Tim Needham

Desktop mobility – agile working

Marcus Boyce

2 Machine learning in FRS

Apollo Gerolymbos

Transforming leadership

James Cornford

Debriefing app
Mobilising app
Ian Nelson & Dylan Bettles-Hill
Location tracking of firefighters in buildings (GovTech funded)

Steve McLinden

3 Public facing digital tools using agile

Pete Richardson

Wearable technologies

Tim Clapp

MAIT – transfer of incident data

Matt Petts

Barrier Failure methods for learning

Jim Davies

4 MDTs on appliances how to get crews to use them

Gamification of risk data
Training materials too

Chris O’Conner, Paul McCourt
& Mick South

Common data model to share data

Steve Allen

Digitally transform a fire and rescue service

Steve McLinden

Figure 1: Digital and data topics explored by FRS delegates during the unconference.

The art of the possible

In collaboration with TechUK, the DDP ran a workshop with key staff from the fire sector as well technology experts from the private sector to explore the art of the possible. The workshop centred around three main themes: necessity of data skills throughout organisations, ethics in dealing with data and the future of data and the FRS.

Data skills 

The first of the sessions explored how the NFCC could develop data skills across all roles and the core principles of creating a healthy data culture in an organisation. Participants discussed the importance of ‘baking’ data into an organisation’s strategy from the top down: if leaders understand that data is an asset in their organisation then that attitude can more easily flow through all areas and not just be confined to data analysts. This may involve a level of data training for leaders and staff within the organisation to foster greater curiosity about data and working through the practicalities of this is the next step.

Further discussions established that good data quality relies heavily on buy-in from those charged with collecting it. Explaining why data is needed gives meaning to this essential task. It was concluded that a framework that defines and oversees the evolution of data-focused roles within the fire and rescue services could be useful in facilitating better conversations between those whose job it is to deal with data and those who use (or should use) the data to make decisions.

Data ethics

Fire and rescue services use geographical and socio demographic data from both private and public sources to understand risk and allocate its finite resources accordingly. With the use of large amounts of public data to make decisions comes difficult ethical questions that extend beyond considering only General Data Protection Regulations and personal data.

The workshop established that extending awareness of these ethical considerations beyond those involved in information governance to those involved in collecting, storing, and using data in the fire and rescue services is an important next step in the organisation’s digital maturity. No definitive solutions were agreed during this session; however, the DDP will look to sources on this topic from places like the Open Data Institute, the Office for Artificial Intelligence and the Government Digital Service for ideas on best practice. The police are more mature in this area so the DDP will seek to learn from their experience.

The fuzzy future

The final session was devoted to future gazing and covered the perennial themes of data quality, data standards and leadership. The session raised fundamental questions about skills gaps within the fire and rescue services: the NFCC would like to see a national level vision based on investing in data, however, there remains uncertainty in what the current digital skill set is in the fire and rescue services and what is required in the future to make the most of data.

Starting with the end in mind

Inspired by the London Institute of Technology and Innovation (LOTI), the DDP has chosen an outcomes-based methodology for the programme. This method has been chosen for several reasons:

  1. Outcomes give meaning to problems and solutions. By identifying problems and solutions in the context of an outcome it avoids the tendency to select those that, although important, do not necessarily lead to the desired outcomes being realised.
  2. It avoids the simple “copy and paste” of best practice solutions that may be inappropriate in a different organisational context. Instead, best practices are seen as possible ideas and inspiration for specific outcomes that could be enabled. The programme should aim to create solutions that are tailored to the organisation’s unique structure and challenges.
  3. Outcomes provide an anchor when change inevitably occurs and new information is learnt. Aligning a trial and error process towards project outcomes leads to continual improvement and refinement of problems and solutions rather than endless trial and error. This mindset permits experimentation and learning from mistakes to hone solutions: a process analogous to agile development in product design.

The ‘Double Diamond’ design framework, developed by the British Design Council, structures how these outcomes can be achieved. The basic philosophy of the framework is to encourage divergent and convergent thinking throughout the problem definition and solution phases of the project lifecycle.

Problem definition involves first an information-gathering discovery phase to gain background and better understanding of the challenges faced within the organisation’s context, before condensing this information to define specific problems to be solved. Following this, solutions are arrived at by exploring and developing several options which are then concentrated down to leave those most appropriate for achieving the project outcomes.

Desired outcomes

With the methodology established, learning through the discovery phase has enabled the DDP to define a draft set of change themes and outcomes to be refined through further engagement. These outcomes will inform the projects run by the DDP.

Where appropriate the DDP will apply an agile approach to delivery of these outcomes. This involves running smaller projects that provide incremental gains early on and inform new projects that become progressively more aligned to the intended outcomes and leverage off information gained from previous iterations. This approach allows the overarching project to adapt to inevitable changes and new information learnt throughout the digital transformation lifecycle.

Change theme 1: Enabling data interoperability

  • All fire and rescue services can share and access relevant national prevention, protection and response data to inform local analysis and policy development
  • All fire and rescue services have access to key third-party datasets to inform community risk management planning, to enable national consistency and comparability
  • All fire and rescue services can easily and efficiently share data between blue light control rooms.

Change theme 2: Providing public services online

  • All fire and rescue services can provide equitable online access to the public for all non-response services.

Change theme 3: Standardising for national consistency

  • All fire and rescue services can access a national procurement framework for specialist data skills and services
  • Locally developed software applications are built to a nationally common standard to allow sharing and scalability across services.

Change theme 4: Upskilling our staff

  • All fire and rescue service staff have a level of data literacy appropriate to their role
  • All fire and rescue services are able to share organisational learning at the national level
  • All fire and rescue services are able to use and access tools, standards and guidance products developed by the NFCC via appropriate online platforms.

Change theme 5: Sustainment and continuous improvement

  • The capability of the UK fire and rescue service is continually assessed and evolved in step with the changing nature of demand and the operating environment of the service
  • Areas of best practice within the UK fire and rescue service will be identified and scaled to be made available to all, improving consistency and maximising existing investment.

Change theme 6: Developing insights

  • All fire and rescue services are able to evaluate the performance of their activities using consistent and comparable methodologies in order to maximise the efficiency and effectiveness of the service they offer
  • A national Digital Information Service provides clear direction and consistency in relation to the use and implementation of data analytics within the UK fire and rescue services.

Summary and conclusions

The discovery phase has uncovered a wide range of ideas and a great deal of enthusiasm to evolve the way the fire and rescue services leverage digital and data technology to improve its service. When consolidating all that has been learnt, several general improvement themes emerge:

  • greater data sharing between local fire and rescue services
  • unlocking efficiencies through national analytics on larger datasets
  • improving data quality and maximising analysis outcomes through data standards
  • increasing access to new and existing national datasets to unlock further insight
  • establishing a data culture within the fire and rescue services so that how, and why, data is used is always considered, right from the initial stages of data collection.

The next step for the DDP is to prioritise and test the established project outcomes with key stakeholders. Further research and scoping will then be required to define each of the projects and understand the costs and resources required to deliver their outputs and enable the culture change across the service that is fundamental to achieving the DDP’s outcomes.

The discovery process does not end here. Discovery is a continuous process of learning from others and understanding changes and future trends in the digital landscape that should be considered. This process will continue across the life of the programme.