Avoiding the silo

Published:  06 September, 2016

Hazmat tactical advisor for Hampshire Constabulary (UK) Mike Batten addresses some of the persistent failings in multi-agency response to major incidents.

In 2008 I was posted to Totton Police Station in Southampton. Part of my responsibility as a hazmat tactical advisor was to liaise with Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, and I quickly established a good working relationship with Watch Manager Chas McGill at Hardley Fire Station.

Over the following years, McGill and I planned and executed a number of multi-agency exercises simulating a response to an incident at the nearby Exxon Fawley refinery. As these exercises grew in scale and complexity, I realised that the degree of cooperation and joint working between responders did not always go to plan. I was keen to develop my understanding of these issues, and in 2012 I embarked on a part-time Master’s degree in Emergency Planning and Management at Coventry University.

The course gave me a fascinating insight into emergency planning, which I was keen to apply to my day job. This led to an interest in understanding why multi-agency working wasn’t always successful, and the subject of my dissertation was silo working in the emergency services.

By good fortune, this coincided with the introduction in 2012 of the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Project, JESIP. This two-year project was set up by the UK Government to address persistent failings in the UK emergency response to large-scale/disaster incidents. 

Over the next two years, more than 100,000 UK emergency services personnel were trained in the Joint Doctrine, which provides a framework for the emergency services to work together to achieve a successful outcome at disaster events.

JESIP was concluded in 2014 and was superseded by the Joint Organisational Learning programme (JOL). This builds on the JESIP framework to encourage responders to share lessons learned locally and submit them to the JESIP JOL website for the benefit of responders nationally.

The JOL programme therefore is a repository of hard-won knowledge, used to develop a national response strategy to multi-agency incidents.

During the course of my research, I was able to draw on the work of JESIP and its partners. This article is a condensed version of my dissertation, and represents my research into the causes and effects of silo working in the emergency services and its impact on interoperability.

Silo working and its effect on emergency services interoperability

A series of high-profile disaster events in the UK in the last 30 years – including the 7/7 London bombings in 2005, Buncefield in 2006, and severe weather events such as the flooding in Gloucestershire in 2007 and Somerset in 2013/14 - has led to a growing realisation within the emergency services and among critical observers that emergency response to major incidents has not always enjoyed a uniformly successful outcome. The continuing threat of a major terrorist incident in the UK underlines the need for responders to train and work together to achieve the best result.

In recent years, considerable work has been carried out in the UK to identify and address the issues surrounding multi-agency working and to achieve interoperability. This arose from the recognition that the same mistakes were being repeated at successive major incidents, and ultimately led to the introduction of JESIP in 2012.

The concept of interoperability, what it constitutes and how it is to be achieved, is surprisingly complex. It is not a quick fix and, in reality, interoperability is a single word that encompasses many processes.

While JESIP has arguably been successful in promoting interoperability, it could be argued that the problems it was created to address are too deeply seated to be dealt with in the original two-year timeframe. The advent of JOL, whilst continuing the push towards effective multi-agency working, may not have the required impact to achieve success if the underlying problems have not been correctly assessed. To use a medical analogy, failure to identify the correct symptoms may lead to a wrong diagnosis and incorrect treatment, which may only be partially successful or create further complications.

The path to interoperability

In her 2011 report on the London bombings, Lady Justice Hallet said: ‘The importance of effective inter-agency liaison and good communications at the earliest opportunity should not be underestimated' (Hallet: 2011:35).

The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 and government guidance on national resilience (UK Cabinet Office: 2013) require and encourage responders to work together, and while recent government cuts have forced greater inter-service collaboration, this is driven by the need to save money rather than improving service delivery.

During my research, one of the major obstacles to interoperability identified by responders was silo working. However, this was imperfectly understood and in most cases identified as a failure to communicate. Considerable time was therefore devoted to establishing the true meaning, causes and effects of silo working.

In her 2010 report, Interoperability in a Crisis, Jennifer Cole (RUSI) stated that 62% of respondents to her survey cited 'silo thinking’ as a ‘barrier to organisational interaction’ (Cole: 2010:8), however, ‘silo thinking’ was not defined.

The presence of silos was further identified in a 2013 parliamentary report, which stated: ‘The silo mentality prevails in key areas such as organisation, planning, training, personnel, infrastructure, doctrine, concepts, information and logistics’ (Ellwood & Phillips: 2013:6).

Silo working

The term ‘silo working’ has gained currency in recent years and has been used to describe the restriction of communication, cooperation and coordination within and between organisations.

A silo is a tubular metal container, commonly used for bulk storage. It therefore represents a simple analogy for the containment and restriction of ideas and information within an organisation, to the detriment of other personnel or departments within it, or those outside (Select Strategy:2002).

However, this analogy does not recognise the complexity of the individual silos, which potentially cause the greatest problems, as they need not necessarily be confined to the sharing of information.

Work by American academic Marion Biggs defines silos as ‘invisible barriers that can exist between team members and departments within organisations. The barriers can often lead to miscommunication, the absence of collaboration, a failure to calibrate factual data, and a lack of consistent practices’ (Biggs: 2014:3).

Although her work is based on the corporate environment, Biggs identifies eight distinct types of silo across a broad spectrum of activity (Biggs: 2014:71-73). In particular she identifies four types relevant to the emergency response arena:

  • Communication – the need for individuals and teams to listen to and constructively discuss information or issues relevant to all of them.
  • Calibration – the sharing, analysis and interpretation of information to reach consensus and mutual understanding.
  • Collaboration – ensuring there is inclusivity, whilst accepting, by all team members, the differences of those same team members.
  • Purpose – understanding the reasons why the work of an organisation or team is done in a certain way.

When applied to the work of the emergency services, it is the effect of these four silos that may encompass many of the problems encountered within and between responders, and create the conditions for failures in the response phase of an incident, which have been highlighted in post-incident lessons learned (Pollock: 2013).

Single-service protocols and training and response regimens are necessary to train effective personnel and to provide an effective incident response within the confines of the role of a particular agency. However, when personnel from the respective services come together, the Communication, Calibration, Purpose and Collaboration silos defined by Biggs may be seen and experienced by responders in simple terms as a failure to share information, have a common understanding of what the incident involves, or to reach consensus as to how it should be dealt with.

Silo working in the emergency services is therefore a more complex matter than simply addressing problems with communication, or the issue of personnel within the services applying their own, single-service approach to incident response.

While there are obvious benefits to be derived from the JESIP training, it could be argued that unless a long-term, ongoing embedded training programme, involving all the emergency services, is developed, existing silos will not be removed and the underlying problems will not be solved.

The degree to which organisations and individuals within the emergency services can adjust their behaviours and working practices to overcome silo working is a moot point. At any large-scale incident, teams of responders must come together spontaneously and work equally effectively with each other. It is highly likely that teams from each service have never worked together before at a disaster event.

The understanding and enabling of interoperability is therefore increasingly complex as it moves from the simple exchange of information to incorporate organisational cultures, behaviours and working practices to overcome silo working.

The future

There is clearly a need to identify and clarify the different types of silo that may exist within and between UK emergency services. The silos between the services may vary from county to county or even within county boundaries, but if a common understanding of what constitutes silo working and its various forms cannot be reached, progress towards true interoperability may be limited.

It is therefore worth identifying three interlinking areas for further research, which could be key influences on silo working and interoperability.

  • Communication and how this is undertaken through incident command and control.
  • Organisational culture and how this may affect inter-agency communication.
  • Training and exercising, and the degree to which frequency and exposure may affect or influence inter-agency communication and cultural issues.

While there may be a desire on the part of the services to work together, the reality of embracing and understanding cultural differences and adapting working practices to enable this to take place may be difficult at both the personal and institutional level. In fact, it may be entirely possible that personnel within the respective services, while willing to work interoperably, simply do not understand exactly what is required to enable that to happen.


Emergency responders thrust together at an incident come from disparate teams and cultures. They must rapidly build a common picture of the incident, identify clear single-service as well as multi-agency objectives, and integrate their efforts accordingly. The effectiveness of these processes will frame how the incident response unfolds.

There must therefore be clear, unambiguous leadership from individual commanders and a readiness to exchange time-critical information. However, in order to succeed, these principles must be embedded prior to the onset of the event.  

In order to address silo working within the police, fire and ambulance services there must first be a wider recognition of both its existence, and of the nature of individual silos. This requires a balancing of the mix of service cultures, communication, inter-service trust, leadership and team building that make up a complex synergistic picture.

In a sense, both interoperable and silo working can be seen as an incredibly complex jigsaw comprising innumerable pieces. Reaching a universal understanding of what the individual pieces are and how they may fit together seems to be the true challenge.

Ultimately a solution is required that, as far as possible, takes into account the various objectives and competing agendas within the responding agencies, and also seeks to achieve the best possible outcome for the victims and those caught up in emergencies or disaster events.

It could be argued that, until such time as the emergency services are brought together under the control of a single government department, with nationally-agreed interoperable working policies and supported by a common education and training regime, true interoperability will be difficult to achieve.

The Civil Contingencies Act provides a foundation for this to take place, however, ‘in the absence of an entity that has ownership of the joint response, joint working will only take place if the environment is created whereby each agency gains advantage from enhanced communication with each other’ (Bell & Cox: 2006:36). 

As cynical as it may seem, perhaps progress will only be made if clearly demonstrable benefits for each service are apparent, or perhaps conversely, financial or legal penalties are imposed for failure to routinely train and exercise together. A litany of historic investigations identifying the same failings clearly does not provide the appropriate degree of motivation.

  • Operation Florian

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