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March 31, 2010

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MPs reveal anxiety over project to overhaul fire rescue

A group of MPs has severely criticised a project aimed at improving the responsiveness and efficiency of the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS), and has stipulated that the Government meets a raft of conditions if it is to continue with the scheme.

The main purpose of the FiReControl project is to improve the prompt and efficient mobilisation of firefighters in response to a fire, or other related incident. It involves the replacement of the existing 46 local FRS control rooms with nine purpose-built Regional Control Centres (RCCs). These hubs will handle emergency 999 calls, mobilise resources, and support the management of incidents via network technology.

According to Communities and Local Government, the Department responsible for the project, the new system will provide significant safety benefits for both the public and firefighters.

In evidence provided to the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, fire minister Shahid Malik said: “The roll-out of Mobile Data Terminals (MDTs) to all FRSs across the country will provide risk information to firefighters, including information on buildings and details of known risks and hazards, guidance on the safe handling of chemicals, details of motor-vehicle design in road-traffic accidents, and the location of the nearest hydrants and water supplies.”

However, the Fire Brigades Union has raised concerns that the project could result in a less efficient and less safe service. It sees FireControl as based on a roadside-assistance control model, comprising “call-handling, mobilising, and limited incident monitoring and support”.

Submitting its own evidence to the committee, it said: “Command and control is what ensures the safety of firefighters and the public at incidents and goes well beyond basic incident monitoring and support.

“It is central to fulfilling several statutory duties placed on fire authorities, including ensuring the health and safety of their firefighters. A proper command and control function was not included in the specifications for FireControl.

Issuing a report on its findings, the committee acknowledged these concerns and further criticised the project, describing it as “beset by a lack of openness and collaboration with the main stakeholders”.

The CLG did not allow the committee to have sight of independent reviews of its management of the project – even in confidence – which the MPs suggested “implies a certain insecurity about its handling of the FiReControl project to date”. The project has also experienced severe delays and escalating costs.

The committee recommended that the Department continues with the project, but only if certain conditions are met. These include:

  • resolving its contractual dispute with IT contractor, EADS, and implementing a viable project plan;
  • closely monitoring delivery of FiReControl against interim milestones, and examining alternative viable options for delivery to be implemented in case of any slippage;
  • addressing the shortcomings in its management of the project;
  • consulting fully with FRS staff and professionals in defining end-user requirements;  
  • taking further steps to shift the negative perception of the project and to influence fire and rescue authorities to switch to the new system; and
  • providing assurances that the safety and security of the London Olympic Games will not be compromised during the roll-out of the RCCs.

However, FBU general secretary Matt Wrack believes that the latter three conditions cannot be met, and called for the project to be abandoned.

He said: “No credible guarantee can be offered about whether the safety and security of the Olympic Games will be compromised. If the new RCCs are not fully operational, it will be compromised, and ministers promising otherwise are making pledges that they do not know they can keep.”

Responding to the committee’s report, fire minister Shahid Malik said: “We accept that there have been problems in delivering the FireControl project. However, through the changes we have already made – many reflected in the committee’s recommendations – I believe the project is in a better position than ever before.

“The benefits it will deliver, especially a level of interoperability between fire and rescue services that we simply do not have at present, outweigh the challenges.”


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