Network switch

The Interior Ministry invited to reassure the emergency services about an “ambitious” network switch

MPs called on the Home Office to step up contingency planning in case a new emergency communication system for police, fire and ambulance services is not ready in time for start-up scheduled for December 2019.

The UK’s 105 police, fire and ambulance services currently communicate using the Airwave radio system, but contracts for this program will expire in 2019.

By then, the Home Office – with financial support from the Department of Health and the Scottish and Welsh governments – hope to have the new Emergency Services Network (ESN) in place.

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The new system aims to cut costs by using the UK’s existing commercial 4G mobile data network instead of a dedicated utility network, and Motorola Solutions and EE have been tasked with setting it up and doing so. function.

But a new report from the Public Accounts Committee warns that the “ambitious target date” for ESN delivery is “unlikely” to be met, with the National Audit Office’s expenditure watchdog already estimating that the program is “between five and ten months behind target”. ”.

According to the PAC, many emergency services are still waiting for “sufficient assurance” that ESN is “at least as good as” the existing Airwave system before committing to the change, and the committee notes that the Department of ‘Interior has reduced its timeline for the region-by-region transition to ESN by three months.

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“The ministry told us they would not force emergency services to switch to ESN if they were not happy with it,” the committee said.

“We have observed previously that convincing local organizations to use new services can be a difficult process and we believe that it will be difficult to get all emergency services to collectively agree that ESN is ready so that Airwave can be deactivated as planned in 2019. “

The committee calls on the Home Office to review the ESN program schedules, urging it to “work with emergency services” to ensure that the transition plans for the new network are realistic.

“He must take responsibility for convincing the services to switch to ESN, but also be clear when he will make the switchover mandatory,” MEPs said.

The PAC also stresses that the Home Office has not budgeted for possible overruns “nor put in place detailed emergency arrangements”, including possible contract extensions with its suppliers, to manage the risk that the switchover will not be complete by the end. from 2019.

Leadership “stability”

Despite the risks identified by the PAC report, there is praise from the group of MPs for the project’s lack of leadership loss, a frequent scarecrow of the committee.

The report notes that the top emergency services project official – its main lead in charge – “set up the program in February 2011 and has remained in post since then”, with low staff turnover “throughout. of the life of the program ”.

“The ministry told us they had staff who were very committed to the project and that it was making a huge difference,” the committee said. “The stability of the ESN program team contrasts
favorably with other high-level programs we reviewed, such as Electronic Borders, where the lack of continuity in leadership positions has been a considerable challenge for successful execution.

However, the committee’s report raises concerns about the lack of “competitive pressure” in the award of either of the two main contracts that make up the ESN. For the user services contract – which involves the provision of data centers and support services for the project – and the network contract, one of the end suppliers withdrew from the tendering process. , a result which, according to the PAC, left the Interior Ministry “exposed to a potentially uncompetitive situation. sole supplier situation ”.

“The ministry should review its terms of the call for tenders to ensure that it does not exclude potential bidders too quickly, in order to avoid future sole-source situations,” recommends the PAC.

“Execution overruns”

At the launch of the report, PAC chairperson and Labor MP Meg Hillier said the stakes in launching the program were “extremely high”, and called on the central government to do more to ensure blue light services are met. the quality of the new system.

“It is only fair that emergency services do not commit to using ESN in life-threatening situations until they are convinced it is working,” she said.

“Questions continue to hang over the technology, especially how it works on underground systems in London and elsewhere – high-risk environments that present unique challenges in an emergency. These need to be dealt with urgently. “

Hillier added, “It is encouraging that the ESN program manager has remained in office since 2011, providing a degree of stability absent from some of the large-scale projects reviewed by our committee.

“However, we are disappointed that detailed contingency plans have not been budgeted for or developed in the event that, as now appears likely, implementation overruns.”

A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “The new Emergency Services Network (ESN) will provide the dedicated professionals who work so hard to protect the public and save lives the most advanced communication system of its kind. .

“Police, fire and rescue and ambulance teams will be able to do their jobs more efficiently with ESN and the new system will result in significant savings for the taxpayer.

“The timelines are ambitious as we want to make the most of the technology that will help save lives, but we are clear that no risk will be taken with public safety and the existing Airwave system will continue until the transition to ESN is complete. “

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