Chancellor George Osborne’s Comprehensive Spending Review has created a great deal of unrest in the public sector and there is much talk of ongoing strike action by trade unions.
London Fire Brigade CIO Julian Martin, as a key member in the modernisation of the fire service in our capital city, was preparing for a strike on the Saturday following our interview.
Strikes are difficult things and can cause harm to all sides, especially when the organisation involved is one that is not only essential but is also held dear by the public, and Martin talked of the tightrope senior IT leaders have to walk between modernising the organisation and keeping frontline staff motivated and happy as their world changes.
“We’ve been anticipating and planning for the cuts and we are prepared,” says Martin as we discuss the impact the spending cuts will have on emergency services.
“[The government’s] comments about the fire service were interesting. In general they seem to say that if we modernise as an organisation then that will be recognised by the government. The over-riding thing is that we are a blue light organisation and people do forget that. We do have some things in common with a council, but not many. I think we will look at our core services and examine opportunities to provide those to other fire services to reduce costs – there has been a call for fire services to share more.
“The services that the brigade offers are complex, like chemical or bacterial attack response, fire prevention, and regulatory issues such as issuing fines if a retail outlet is assessed to be not up to standard, for example,” he explains of the organisation. London Fire Brigade is the largest fire service in Great Britain, all its firefighters are full-time employees and areas such Soho are very busy.
The Fire Brigade Union (FBU) had called a one-day strike for the Saturday after our meeting and Martin and his team were preparing for the day of action.
“There will be a number of us from IT in including myself. We are here just in case IT services fail. It is not a ‘business as usual’ day and I don’t want a bad day to be made worse by an IT problem,” he says.
Sharing and modernising
As well as assessing what services the brigade can offer other fire services, Martin is already investigating the potential for it to offer payroll services to the Greater London Authority, the body that funds the London Fire Brigade. The Fire Brigade is shortly to move into a shared datacentre facility provided by Transport For London.
“There is potential for increased shared services, but there is always a rationale for shared services not to work and sometimes they are true,” says Martin.
“Year-on-year we go through a savings exercise. In IT a lot of our costs are fixed as they are contracted services.” Contracting is an issue that goes right across the fire service – it leases its entire vehicle fleet and even the uniforms worn by firefighters.
“It is now a case of going back to the business and asking what level of demand can be accepted. We will identify areas where we can relax service levels with less strict SLAs and business units will have to carry the cost of any systems enhancements,” he says of non-critical areas of the organisation. “We are a demand-led organisation. Demand either stays the same or increases.”
Although the coalition demands that the public sector modernises and reduces costs, as far as Martin is concerned his IT operation is already modern and is fully engaged in the overall modernisation of the brigade. Proposed changes to firefighters’ start and finish times are causing the current friction levels between union and senior management.
A greater challenge for Martin is the buildings that the brigade operates from, especially the city’s Victorian fire stations.
“The buildings are old, many are listed and may be architecturally appealing, but not for network engineers. There is often asbestos present and then health and safety issues arise and a project can grow and grow. The buildings don’t support wireless networking well because of the thickness of the walls.” This is a major issue as the fire tenders used by the brigade have mobile data terminals that remotely receive a variety of data relating to incidents that they attend.
But putting the strike aside, Martin is adamant that throughout the organisation there is a passion and commitment about what the brigade does for the capital.
“The people that work for the brigade I think generally want to work here. You are providing a service that is very tangible to people that live in London, and I work with a lot of very committed people.”
IT is crucial to all organisations, and in the case of the London Fire Brigade it plays an essential part in saving people’s lives. At the heart of the brigade and its IT is the mobilising system for responding to 999 calls by scrambling fire tenders and delivering information to the fire crew.
The mobilising system handles all the information the brigade’s 113 fire stations and 132 sites across the city require to respond to emergencies. As you can imagine, Martin has to ensure that the mobilising system is failsafe and has high availability.
Martin has four direct reports managing the ICT infrastructure, ICT governance, business engagement and contracts and support services management. His department supports 7000 users and has its own datacentre and a backup datacentre.
“In IT we own all our own infrastructure. The support is outsourced for desktops, servers and we have outsourced things such as, firewall management and software development. The core of my team work as design analysts implementing new projects, as well as teams for project management, security, customer support and configurement,” he says.
IT also has its own emergency service: teams of field service and radio engineers that support key station end and radio functions.
The brigade has been upgrading its technology for the last decade in a constant stream of modernisation. In 1999 it went entirely thin-client and has been developing that model for efficiency ever since. To that end it has recently completed a virtualisation project.
“We are where we need to be,” Martin says. “What comes next is interesting in terms of where we could be by using cloud computing, outsourcing and shared services. It is likely to be about using all three depending on the business problem.
“We push technology well now. It is there to support the needs of the business and to show the ‘art of the possible’. We are talking about 4G network technology and the IT team is pushing the limits more than before. Previously we were told ‘don’t let this project be seen to be IT-led’. That is now changing to be about showing process efficiencies,” he says.
A recent management restructure means Martin reports to the director of finance and contractual services. His spell with the brigade has been one of the longest stints in his career and he enjoys the multitude of challenges, technically and organisationally, that it throws at him.
“You can get very drawn into what’s happening. It is fascinating. IT has to be close to the business in any organisation, and here you can really see the impact. There are some white knuckle rides at times,” he says with a wry smile.
Mainframes to Pylons
Originally from Cornwall, Martin came into IT from the City & Guilds training that used to supply industry with the skills it required before everyone was told to take Media Studies degrees. Martin trained as a Cobol developer and had to move to Newbury where he joined a software development house. His first move into the public sector was as a technical support manager for West Berkshire Council.
“I set up their first PC environment, they had been a large user of mainframes and over eight years we transformed them to a new IT environment.”
He then went back into the private sector with Energis Communications, now part of Cable & Wireless in Reading, as a change and configurability manager before moving into support services management. “I found myself in a non-technical role for the first time, which was interesting as I was dealing with technology people and the non-technology people in the organisation and I very much enjoyed it,” he says.
The skills of dealing with technology and people of varying technology abilities helped him secure a role at the London Fire Brigade in 2002, joining at first as a customer support manager. He progressed to become deputy head of ICT and was promoted to head of ICT in 2008.
“It has always been a fascinating place to work,” he says, although he admits it was a culture shock at first. “You have to get used to the fact that it is a uniform service and that means there are different ways that people react to each other.”