Public Accounts Committee

Upgrading Emergency Service Communications - Recall inquiry

Inquiry status: Concluded

Report published 21 April 2017. Government response published 12 October 2017.

Report and response published

Scope of the inquiry

The Emergency Services Network is one of the most technologically advanced systems worldwide and is set to replace the existing emergency services communication system, Airwave. However several risks have been highlighted in a recent National Audit Office (NAO) report.

The Government is seeking to upgrade the radio system used by the police, fire and ambulance services with a system that is not yet in use nationwide anywhere in the world, and therefore carries significant implementation risk, according to the National Audit Office. The communication systems used by our emergency services can literally make the difference between life and death for members of the public and the services themselves.

The current communication service, Airwave, has served the emergency services effectively, and has averaged 99.9% availability since April 2010. It is, however an expensive system, costing £1,300 per handheld or vehicle-mounted device per year, and its data capabilities are poor. In addition, a deteriorating commercial relationship with Airwave after 2010 meant that the government did not believe an extension or re-procurement would offer value for money.

The Government has been looking at options to replace Airwave when the contracts expire, and has set up the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme to carry out this work. The Government's chosen option to replace Airwave is known as the Emergency Services Network (ESN). ESN is inherently high risk. It is expected to save money by using parts of an existing commercial 4G network, that of EE. International comparison work, commissioned by the NAO, has concluded that the proposed ESN solution is the most advanced in the world, with only one other country—South Korea—seeking to deploy a similar solution.
There are significant technical challenges that the programme needs to overcome including working with EE to increase the coverage and resilience of its 4G network so that it at least matches Airwave and developing handheld and vehicle mounted devices as no devices currently exist that would work on ESN.

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