Most REA members will remember the phones on Watch Room duty, M2GX, Regional Controls or Juliet Control as centralised in Johnstone, Renfrewshire. In the 21st century fire service the successors to these vital, and much loved Control personnel are now part of the Operations Directorate within SFR and are located in the relatively newly named Operations Support Centre in Johnstone.
Although the primary purpose of taking fire calls, getting as much information as possible, and despatching resources to the fire scene may not have changed much over the years, the responsibilities and the technology have increased tremendously. Following a phone call from former Control Officer Averil McPate in which she suggested a visit to the new OSC, I contacted my friend Marie Clare Coyle to see if such a visit could be arranged.
As usual Marie Claire pulled out all the stops, made the arrangements and our REA members met at OSC in Johnstone for a good look round. She met us at the reception, gave us an excellent presentation in the lecture room, full of facts and figures then took us on a tour of the facilities. Marie Clare said that it has been about 25 years since the amalgamation of all the Regional Controls and they have been in the new building for 10 years already.
The OSC complex consists of two buildings linked by an overhead passageway and it went “live” on 12th February 2001 with the Official Opening by HRH Queen Elizabeth taking place on 5th July 2001. There are 75 uniformed staff at the OSC and they have the same conditions and shift systems as operational staff. However there is also a Midshift at OSC from 10.00 – 22.00 to help cope with what is statistically the busiest period of each day.
The staff are subject to the same SFR Code of Conduct and have 95% of equivalent roles pay. For each operational rank there is the same rank in OSC with the only difference being the addition of (C) after the rank to signify Control. OSC has 2 specific functions – Operations Control and Resource Planning.
For the Operations Control each officer has three computer terminals at their own work station; a touch screen monitor to allow them to access phone numbers of any organisation or emergency service rapidly, a monitor showing a map screen with access to every town, street and location within Strathclyde, and their main screen for taking and inputting all the incident information from the caller and mobilising the nearest fire appliances.
When a call is received the new IT equipment automatically shows or stores the name, address, phone company, who the subscriber is etc so that OSC can act on it if need be. If it is a fire call from a mobile phone then the signal gives Eastings and Northings so it can be pinpointed to a few streets on the map screen. OSC receive approximately 100,000 emergency calls, dealing with an average of 60,000 incidents, and in the region of 250,000 calls per year, with the same number of radio messages having to be dealt with. They are one of the busiest OSC’s in Europe and have more calls in a month than some Control Centres have in a year. OSC also have the responsibility for dealing with Resource Planning, which includes the management of Senior Officer availability and the relatively new Central Staffing function. Central Staffing began when the 5 Group Duty System came on board a year or two ago as a trial period but it is now a much greater responsibility now that the whole of SFR is on the 5GDS.
The staff at OSC need to maintain the Establishment minimum at all times to ensure the maximum efficiency of SFR and consequently any requests for days off etc have to be passed to OSC for approval. Can you imagine dealing with all that paperwork? OSC staff now also take part in table- top exercises and operational exercises on site. This ensures a better understanding of the work that firefighters do and the problems they encounter and allows a greater degree of teamwork on the fireground. They also visit fire stations on a regular basis, to get to know the firefighters, station routines, appliances and equipment, station training etc – all designed to give a better idea of what the firefighters do and may go through.
A new idea being piloted, thanks to smarter technology is the introduction of “Dynamic Mobilising” whereby resources are mobilised from those out and about who may be the nearest to the fire scene – not necessarily from the nearest fire station! As with all aspects of the Fire Service, the job may basically remain the same but the progression of technology and of society can bring extra responsibilities and accountability, but ultimately we are still in the business of saving lives and the OSC staff are an extremely important part of that team.