Emergency duty teams are under threat but they still have much to offer and a lot to communicate, argues Graham Hopkins
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is one of those pithy American business slogans that have lodged themselves firmly in our collective psyche. It may have become an inspiration to anti-activists but at its heart it has a point: not everything with roots in the past (despite the rampant supremacy of “modernisation”) is rubbish.
And today nothing seems to symbolise the social work past more than emergency duty or out-of-hours work. Regularly dismissed as relics and dinosaurs, this curious breed of risk assessing, problem-solving and generic worker with an average of 15 years’ post-qualifying experience still, roams the social care world providing a service every evening, night, weekend and bank holiday, totalling about 130 hours a week.
Set up in the 1970s because social workers stopped doing standby, emergency duty teams (EDTs) have, like their workers, shown innovation and resourcefulness and have adapted to change. However, despite links with other agencies, such as police, housing and health, with workers often working alone, the service can be isolated. Peer support needs to be sought from outside. And this is where the Emergency Social Services Association (Essa) steps in.
“Essa was set up to link out-of-hours teams and to share information,” says the group’s communications officer Duncan Fairweather, emergency duty service team manager at Kirklees Council in Yorkshire. “But we also seek to influence national and local policies. For example the Scottish Consumer Council’s report In The Shadows: Out of Hours Social Work Services in Scotland is posted on our website.”
The website, which provides advice for members, is a forum to share experiences and even advertises, free of charge, EDT job vacancies around the country.
However, it is from the split between children’s and adults’ services that the biggest threat to generic existence comes.
Fairweather says: “Some authorities are moving into social care direct, some are having an adult-children split, and many authorities are having service level agreements with adult and children’s services.”
For Essa it is important that policymakers understand the uniqueness of EDT work. “It’s not the same doing the work at 3am as it is at 3pm: you can’t have an equitable service throughout the whole day – people don’t want to be visited at 3am,” says Fairweather. “Essa accepts 24-hour working but there has to be differences. We’re not a call centre for a bank; we are trying to provide a service for vulnerable people within the policies and legal framework that people work during the day.”
He adds: “What we learn through networking is that authorities have moved in different directions. Some have large support networks such as children’s services; others have rapid response units for older people. But those things are not replicated nationally. So Essa tries to take the best practice from each local authority and use that as evidence in our own authorities about how services can develop.”
Further defending their status, Fairweather adds: “We’re the last set of workers who do child protection work and are approved social workers. There are lots of children in families where there are mental health problems – and further problems have arisen because workers didn’t have experience of both sets of work. We bridge that gap. We have a lot of knowledge and skills that we can share with other people.”
Essa’s vice-chair Carol Clark, team leader of Lancashire’s EDT, agrees: “Getting rid of EDTs is not the only way to modernise them. They could develop into full-blown out-of-hours services with specialist functions; there could also be joint arrangements between adults’ and children’s services to provide a comprehensive out-of-hours service. If EDTs have survived for 30 years, they must be doing something right! Perhaps day services can learn from them – a 24-hour duty service?”
Far from being a parochial, law-unto-itself service, Essa believes their work is central. “Many authorities don’t see us as mainstream but for long periods of time we are the mainstream – we are the front end of the services provided,” Fairweather says.
EDTs may well be a souvenir of the past. But perhaps there are positive reasons (resilience, adaptability) for that. EDTs might just be relics worth preserving.
The single file
The network: Emergency Social Services Association. for: Emergency duty and out-of-hours workers.
Membership: About 100 local authorities.
Cost: £80 a year.
The Big Issues: The move to specialist adult and children’s social services threatens the traditional generic out-of-hours services.
Conference: The future of out-of-hours social work, 7-8 November, near Crewe, Cheshire, £135-£370.