A troubled £350 million high-tech control centre project for the fire service may face fresh cuts as the government considers further reducing the number of centres to be used.
The FireControl project, which aims to slash the number of control centres from 46 to nine state-of-the-art buildings, was originally meant to cost £70 million but is now expected to cost five times that figure as the implementation has slipped over two years late so far.
But according to lead supplier EADS, the government is considering cutting the number of control centres below the nine planned, to an unspecified smaller number, in order to slash costs. The original project was initiated before the coalition came to power.
The news has further angered unions representing fire service staff, who fear the potential of even more job cuts and the possibility of a serious operational impact on fire response.
Robin Southwell, chief executive at the EADS, told BBC Radio 4’s ‘Face The Facts’ programme earlier this month that by cutting the number of control centres “we can save maybe hundreds of millions of pounds”.
“What we are in dialogue over is whether we can still deliver the output that is needed with fewer than nine buildings,” Southwell said. “In the event we have fewer centres, as long as we maintain the same performance level, there will be a cost saving.”
The news comes after a report, published in April by the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, concluded that it would cost the government £8 million more to stop the programme and cancel contracts rather than to complete it. Unions have disputed the figure, saying that with nine empty centres costing £1 million a month in rent, it would be cheaper to cancel the scheme immediately.
The Department for Communities and Local Government declined to reveal more details of the discussions, but fire services minister Bob Neill said in a statement that the programme was being reviewed “to ensure value for money for the taxpayer”. An announcement is expected in the government’s Spending Review in the autumn.
Neill insisted the government was “committed to stopping the forced regionalisation of the fire service, as is evident by our dismantling of the previously compulsory Regional Fire Management Boards". But he made no explanation of what steps would be taken with FireControl to avoid this.
Trade unions have long opposed the programme, saying it could cost jobs and endanger safety by giving call centres control of large swathes of the country which the people in the new centres may not have knowledge of.
Sharon Riley, an executive council member at the Fire Brigades Union, expressed her shock upon hearing of the new discussions for the first time on the BBC programme.
“This was the first I’d heard about discussions to reduce the number of centres below nine,” she told Computerworld UK. “The government wants to deliver on cost, quality and time, and it appears the contractors are desperate to do something.”
Riley said the FBU “would still call on the government to cancel” the project. She was concerned the government was being told that “something” could be delivered but that it needed a system “that will definitely work well”.
Sources close to the project said there is “redundancy” in the systems that would allow the number of centres to be cut further without an impact on service, adding that centralising fire response into a few centres was vital to allowing a proper national response to major incidents.
But the FBU questioned a possible “overreliance” on systems above local expertise. “The computers can only give out information based on what is put in,” Riley said, adding that there were major risks associated with asking people to handle calls on other parts of the country “when they do not know the geography”.
“A lot of people ring from mobile phones, and they may be on the move and not able to describe the exact location,” she said. “It takes someone with local knowledge to interpret and act on that kind of information.”
A decision on the project is expected to be announced in the coming weeks.