EXCLUSIVE Regional Fire Controls: the end of an error
With the coup de grace having been made on FiReControl - the most controversial project ever imposed upon the UK Fire and Rescue Service - FRSs will now have to maintain services in the absence of the one time panacea that would resolve all of their command, control, communications and mobilising problems in one easy solution. (At least that was the theory). Now that it exists no more, there are problems that services have to address in order to continue to serve their communities. All FRSs will have issues to resolve - some more critical than others.
The termination of the scheme has been a long time coming and predicted since the beginning of this year. FiReControl will have had few friends to mourn its passing, and those in favour the system may now step gracefully aside and acknowledge (retrospectively perhaps) that perhaps it never was going to work. Meanwhile, those who were sceptical from the beginning can sit smugly by.
However, the consequences for the FRS will be both far-ranging and potentially damaging in the short term. The unnatural hiatus imposed by the demands of the project on other control related activities will mean that a lot of catching up will now need to take place by many services who put their faith in 'jam tomorrow'.
It is worth looking back over the years to remind ourselves what regional control centres were designed to do. The Audit Commission (going but not forgotten) in its 1995 (yes, 15 years ago!) report In the Line of Fire identified that there were imbalances between the activity levels of fire controls, with some dealing with three hundred thousand calls a year while others dealt with a couple of thousand. Over the next decade, a series of reports identified that call centres dealing with around 35,000 calls per year were the most efficient compromise solution. In early estimates by the Audit Commission, up to £13 million could be saved through amalgamation of fire controls.
The 2000 report by Mott McDonald meanwhile, suggested a nine control centre model would be the ideal, but compromised to recommend that 21 sub-regional would satisfy the efficiencies identified. A subsequent Mott McDonald report in 2003 suggested three options - sub regional controls (handling about 30,000 calls per year), regional controls or three supra regional controls. The new recommended way ahead was to create nine. Regional control savings would then be in the order of £20 million per annum.
As one could expect, there were some sceptics right from the start. A huge investment would be required not only to build the regional centres but also to fund development of new software that would work on a national platform integrating all FRSs into one amorphous call-receiving and mobilising system. The funding, which was raised through the New Dimensions pot of gold, was substantial and in the order of half to £1 billion. Even at that stage, the payback period would be 25 years for an investment on the lower end. At some stage during the project, when full business cases had to be developed, there was a subtle shift in tack and the FiReControl project became all about 'resilience' and no longer about 'efficiency'.
As deadlines came and went, the voices opposing the project grew. Initially, there was little opposition. What there was included the Fire Brigades Union, along with some maverick chief fire officers and their authorities. They pointed out what they saw as flaws in the proposals, including the potential failure of unproven technology and a failure to really understand what was needed - not a call centre but an incident management support system. Subsequently there has been a recognition that there was a disconnect between the project teams and the Service, which became acrimonious. CLG finally became heavily involved to resolve the project, and when no satisfactory resolution was found, the trapdoor was pulled this week.
Many of those involved will have to examine what role they have played in a situation that has cost hundreds of millions to produce nine Fort Knoxs. In some ways the support given to the project is understandable - if it had delivered, it should have improved the Service. However, potential flaws had been identified years earlier and this knowledge should have informed FiReControl going forward.
Union opposition may have been more effective if it were not for two issues. Unequivocal opposition to the project forced the FBU to remain outside the 'circle of trust' when a different approach could have resulted in a practical solution. The other factor is that the timing of the project - which got under way just after the national dispute - which may have meant that the FBU was disregarded largely as a spent force. The FBU's proposal for a regional resilient control made imminent sense but was, for the short term, ignored as a possible solution.
The Service has, once again, been left to pick up the pieces. Some FRSs had already made fire control arrangements - some called them 'interim' - that will make them readily resilient in the medium term. There are other services meanwhile, whose creaking systems have been held together by a combination of valves, wires and crossed fingers, as spares are no longer being manufactured and staff with the necessary skills retire. These unfortunate services now have to compete in a supplier-controlled market.
Many developers have seen the fire and rescue market as a closed shop following the decision to go for regional systems. Those manufacturers and developers that kept faith could now be in a strong position to demand higher prices as services dash to remedy the failure of FiReControl. When set against the national cost of the project, the provision of new systems for the fire and rescue services that are in urgent need of new systems seems relatively paltry. However, the capital costs of new systems will need to be found from somewhere - perhaps the £70 million for capital bids may be a potential source of funding.
Posted December 21 2010
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