Friday, 22 April 2011

Out of the frying pan and into the fire - what comes next after government scraps labour's fiasco?

The coalition government’s eminently wise decision to scrap Labour’s wasteful FiReControl project shouldn’t mean it can just wash its hands of what comes next.

FiReControl was formally launched in 2004. The project was designed to replace 46 regional control centre’s across the country with nine state of the art buildings incorporating an IT system to handle emergency calls across England.

From the start the Fire Brigades Union [FBU] said the £1.4 billion project was an unnecessary waste of resources with a union spokesperson saying in 2009 “they can’t make the technology work because what they’ve established are call centres. “Command and Control’ underpins all fire service health and safety procedures but the new centres will only be able to provide very limited support to commanders at an incident - for example they wouldn’t get a service on major emergency procedures, which is vital when fire fighters are trapped.”

By the time Labour had left office in May 2010 it was clear the FBU had been right all along. In the north of the country the two regional centres, at Warrington and Wakefield, which both should have opened 18 months previously remained closed. Hoped for savings of £1.8 million per annum at Wakefield had been revised the previous summer after additional costs of £2.1 million a year were added to the running costs.

In late 2009 over a hundred MPs, of all political colour’s, had signed an Early Day Motion calling for FiReControl to be finally scraped with the then opposition Tories committing themselves to do so if elected.

It was a promise the FBU was keen to see kept although according to Sharon Riley, FBU executive member, the union faced some resistance on grounds that “contracts have already been signed and some Fire Authorities believed the proposed changes have already gone too far. “

Nevertheless just before Christmas Bob Neill, Minister for the Fire Services,
finally brought the expensive fiasco to a halt after announcing he had reached “an acceptable [financial] settlement with Cassidian [the main contractor] after concluding that the requirements of the project requiring the main IT system to be completed in three control centres by mid-2011 cannot be delivered to an acceptable timeframe.”

Great news therefore and one certainly welcomed by the FBU. Problem was what was to come next? And on this the Government appears to have washed its hands.
Suffolk County Council had already agreed a deal to sell off their Ipswich control room site in anticipation of FiReControl coming good. Now with money tight, and no transitional assistance being offered by the government, they’re intending to transfer all 999 emergency fire and rescue calls in the county to be handled at the emergency fire control room at Hinchingbrooke in Cambridgeshire. As Ipswich works perfectly adequately it’s clear that the move is motivated by money. 
Meanwhile on the Isle of Wight councillors are being recommended to back plans to transfer the answering of emergency calls to Surrey Fire and Rescue Service’s control room in Reigate that is sited more 70 miles from the island. Councillors have just the Easter period to consider their options before taking a decision, giving no time at all to discuss this with their constituents even though the move will see those answering the calls in the future lacking the local knowledge that can be vital in saving peoples lives and property.

In December when FiReControl was scrapped the FBU said it was: “important we now see a measured response by the Government and Fire and Rescue Services ensuring we see investment in a structure known to work, with solutions delivered that continue to ensure all fire services have suitable and effective mobilising systems.” No one in the Government appears to be listening. 

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