Emergency services comms system delay could cost lives, says PAC

21 Apr 17

The government’s costly plans to upgrade the emergency services communications system are “catastrophic” and could put people’s lives at risk, the Public Accounts Committee has warned.

Delays to changing the system pose “a major, potentially catastrophic blow” to the ability of the police, fire and ambulance services’ ability to do their job, the group of MPs have warned in a report out today.

Failure to meet the December 2019 target of changing over the system would cost taxpayers £475m a year, the PAC also said.

The committee revealed it might not be possible to extend the contract with the existing provider past March 2020 while the introduction of the new system has now been delayed until September 2020.

Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC, said: “The potential consequences of a six-month gap in emergency service communications are unthinkable.  

“Government needs to tackle this now or the result will be quite simply a tragedy in waiting.” 

The government had intended to extend the contract using the current Airwave system on a month by month basis until the Emergency Services Network (ESN) could be brought in.

But this is no longer possible because Vodafone - a key supplier to Airwave - will from March 2020 stop providing an important piece of infrastructure that the system requires to function, essentially turning it off.

The PAC warns not only may the emergency services not be able to communicate with each other after March 2020 until transition to ESN is complete in September 2020 but that it “is not likely to be deliverable" at all.

The report states: “The Home Office was running the planned programme to ambitiously tight deadlines which have now slipped.”

The committee have urged the government to “urgently engage” with Motorola – which owns Airwave - and Vodafone to resolve the issue.

Today’s report recommends that the Home Office review all the current risks to the programme and be realistic and open about these.

MPs concluded: “The department cannot afford to be caught off-guard again.”

The report also raised concerns about delivering emergency service communications underground, the government is in talks with EE and Transport for London on the matter but the plan has not been finalised.

London will be one of the first regions to move over to the new system with a switch planned for November 2017.

Although, a business case for the change won’t be ready until June or July, leaving six months from business case to roll-out – an extra cause for concern for the PAC.

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