COMMONS

Action needed now to address risks in emergency communication switchover

25 January 2017

The Public Accounts Committee report warns that the target date to replace the radio system used by emergency services is unlikely to be met.

New system "may require more testing"

In a their report, the Committee concludes the Emergency Services Network (ESN), which will replace the current Airwave system, "may require more testing and assurance work than the current December 2019 delivery date seems to allow for".

However, the Committee warns the Home Office has not budgeted for an extended transition period nor put in place detailed contingency arrangements to manage this risk.

ESN, a system not yet in use nationwide anywhere in the world, will be used by the 105 police, fire and ambulance services in Great Britain.

The Government expects it to save money by sharing EE's existing commercial 4G network.

Plans unclear on underground coverage outside London

The Committee highlights that good communications "can make the difference between life and death for both emergency services personnel and the public" and that the Government accepts activity required to complete the project will be "very challenging".

Work is ongoing to expand coverage of the EE network in remote areas and the London Underground but it is not clear whether this will include plans for other underground systems in the UK, says the Committee.

It urges the Home Office to put in place adequate independent testing of the ESN technology "to make sure it works under pressure in a live environment" and also address the "real security concerns" about communications on the London Underground and other underground systems.

Mandated timing of switch-over must be clear

More broadly, the Committee calls on the Home Office to reassess its timescales and costs for the switch to ESN, working with emergency services to update and agree deliverable transition plans and "be clear at what point it will mandate the switchover".

The Committee raises further concerns about the letting of the two main ESN contracts, finding the Home Office "did not manage to maintain competitive pressure" in the process.

It concludes the incumbent suppliers will be in a very strong position when these contracts are re-competed and urges measures to ensure no individual supplier is favoured.

Chair's comments

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the PAC, said:

"The stakes in this programme are extremely high.

It is absolutely right that emergency services will not commit to using ESN in potentially life-or-death situations until they are convinced it works.

Questions continue to hang over the technology, not least how it will operate on underground rail systems in London and elsewhere—high-risk environments that present unique challenges in emergencies.

These must be addressed urgently.

It is encouraging that the head of the ESN programme has remained in post since 2011, providing a degree of stability absent from some high-profile projects our Committee has examined.

However, we are disappointed that detailed contingency plans have not been budgeted for or drawn up in the event that, as now seems likely, implementation over-runs.

It is critical for public safety and achieving value for money that the Government has a firm grasp of the implications of delays in its timetable and a costed plan to tackle them.

We will expect it to demonstrate real progress in this area when it reports back to us later this year."

Report summary

The Home Office (the Department) is replacing the radio system used by the police, fire and ambulance services in Great Britain with a system that is not yet in use nationwide anywhere in the world.

The ESN is an ambitious programme to provide a critical national service, using technology that is still being developed, to a challenging timescale set by the Department.

While the Department has ensured stability in the senior team managing the project, notably through the Senior Responsible Owner who has been in post since 2011, it looks as if the current target date for delivering ESN will not be met.

Emergency services will not use ESN until "convinced" it works

Emergency services will not use ESN until they are firmly convinced that it works, which may require more testing and assurance work than the current December 2019 delivery date seems to allow for.

Despite the prospect of delay the Department has not budgeted for an extended transition period or put in place detailed contingency arrangements to manage this risk.

The Department did not manage to maintain competitive pressure in letting either of the two main ESN contracts and when these contracts are recompeted the incumbent suppliers will be in a very strong position.

Further information

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