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Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service

NCC ITDA Case Study

Greater Manchester fired up by ITDA

An IT team known as the ‘computer prevention department’ just 10 years ago has sealed its reputation as a leading force with an industry award. Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service’s ICT department has won the National Computer Centre (NCC) IT Department Accreditation, confirming its reputation both within the service and nationally.GMFRS

The award has helped the team confirm its credentials and prove how it has developed into an innovative ‘can do’ service in recent years. Director of ICT Damian Parkinson said: “The ITDA is part of our strategy of ensuring that we as an IT department can prove to people, not only internally but externally, that we have been checked and audited and found to be doing a good job.”

He explained: “Our ability to play a lead IT role in the North West is a far cry from where it stood when I first took charge in 2003. At that time, the department had such a poor reputation it was known internally as the “computer prevention department” because it was seen to be obstructing change.”

Damian got to work, merged the then IT and communications departments and then in 2005 drove through a £1 million investment in new network, servers and storage infrastructures and PCs. Since he began, GMFRS has expanded from hosting around 220 client devices to over 1,100 now.

“We’ve got a network into every single site and every single one of our employees can access all of our systems remotely,” explained Damian. “With all that comes higher expectation and we have tried to deliver by increasing our capability and capacity, by delivering the systems people want and advising people on the latest technology.”

Most recently, Parkinson’s department adopted ITIL version 3 across the board, enabling it to streamline staff numbers down from 35 to 28, even though it is delivering more services. Its engineers are also all accredited to the relevant Cisco and Microsoft standards. Following up the ITDA, it is now also looking at the ISO27001 standard for security.

Damian added: “It's part of a general strategy to verify that when we say we’re good, we can back it up.”

This series of improvements have been driven by Parkinson’s belief in ‘continuous self-improvement’ – a mantra that the ITDA fits in with. The ITDA standard tests an IT department’s competence across more than 100 areas of best practice, including business management, IT delivery and operations, business direction, business generation and customer relations.

Crucially, even when an IT team reach the required standard, as GMFRS did, the ITDA still provides an ‘Action Plan’ to help it to keep moving forward. Damian said: “As well as accredit us, the ITDA also found the holes and the gaps that we had for us to then put right, which is really, really useful.”

GMFRS is now working on improvements like introducing better metrics to measure its IT performance, streamlining its change management processes, and developing a more sophisticated skills matrix for its entire IT staff.

Damian added: “One further benefit of the ITDA is the ‘benchmarking’ it provides. One of GMFRS’s original reasons for attempting the standard was that it wanted to compare itself against IT departments in other sectors – not just the fire and rescue services it knew about.

“We looked at a couple of other options – like other ISO accreditations or we could have got consultants in – but we felt that these wouldn’t give us a way of comparing ourselves against others. When we looked at the ITDA, we saw an ideal opportunity to look at an external accreditation which covered a whole range of organisations with wholly different challenges, and all different sizes and types of organisation.

 GMFRS: an innovative ‘can do’ IT service

“That was one reason we wanted to do it, because we saw NCC was non-sector specific and had a whole range of organisations it had accredited. Also, given NCC’s reputation, we felt that it would be a pretty robust process and quite challenging.”

GMFRS began to prepare for the ITDA assessment in early 2012, by considering the different ‘lines of enquiry’ it covers. Seeing that compliance evidence would be required, Parkinson and his team had the smart idea of using GMFRS’s existing Microsoft SharePoint Portal, and set up a special IT team SharePoint site for ITDA, to store evidence and quickly link to it. This produced one unintended benefit: GMFRS now uses the internal ICT SharePoint site for other things.

With his three IT managers, Damian reviewed where GMFRS stood and what it needed to do to reach the standard. He said: “What was immensely useful in the preparation was the gaps it found. It did make us revamp a lot of our policies that were old and out of date; it made us generate new policies where we could see an obvious gap and we didn’t have one; and where we felt we were already doing something but perhaps not as well as we could be, it did prompt us to change some of our processes. So the preparation was a really useful thing.”

He added: “It also made us review a lot of our service level agreements with our suppliers, and we found some that weren’t actually fit for purpose any more. All these things just helped us to sharpen our act.”

GMFRS also improved its security and user acceptance policies, and thanks to all the preparation, when it was assessed in July 2012 it not only attained the ITDA standard, it emerged with above-average scores in many areas.

Even so, in line with Parkinson’s aim of continuous improvement, GMFRS immediately began working on the gaps highlighted in its Action Plan – ready for its re-assessment which will happen one year after accreditation.

So was the ITDA worthwhile? “It definitely offers value,” Damian said, “because it has made us inwardly look at each other which sometimes you don’t do. It did highlight things we could do better which is always a benefit in my view, and we’ve taken some steps to fill those gaps which is really good. Now it’s something we want to keep going and keep the accreditation up – and it’s a springboard to other things. We’re now looking at the SFIA skills framework, which is about the development of our individual staff.”

Finally, Damian put into words why he and GMFRS have such a focus on continuous improvement. “When we send appliances out to an incident, the fire fighters have to be absolutely prepared. They have got to be ready to tackle anything, they’ve got to have the right equipment, they’ve got to have the right tools, and they’ve got to be well trained – the whole ethos of the organisation tries to follow that and ICT is no different.

“So we were pleased that the ITDA recognised us as being above average. We try to do things as best as we possibly can because we have to. So it was nice for us was to see that our processes were as good as anybody else’s – because you don’t really know, until somebody compares you with somebody else, you can’t really tell.”

“That was really useful – to say we are on the right lines, there’s some gaps, but we’re not a million miles away.”

Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service

GMFRS is second largest fire and rescue service outside London, with over 2,500 staff – two-thirds of them operational – and 41 fire stations, covering an area of around 500 square miles and a culturally diverse population of 2.5 million people. Ranging from inner-city developments to old mill towns, Greater Manchester comprises 10 very different districts – Bolton, Bury, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford and Wigan.

GMFRS responds to over 50,000 emergencies a year and its activities range from fighting fires and rescuing people, to attending road traffic accidents and promoting fire safety in local schools and communities across Greater Manchester.

Over its history it has had to deal with some major tragedies, including the 1985 Manchester Airport disaster and the 1996 IRA bomb in the centre of Manchester. Before that blast, fire crews assisted the police in evacuating up to 100,000 people from the city centre. When the bomb detonated, over 100 Greater Manchester firefighters battled fires which broke out and carried out search and rescue operations, rescuing people from collapsed and damaged buildings.

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