Sifting through the wreckage of the failed £469m FireControl public sector IT project

The failure of the government's £469m FireControl project has been widely condemned as a monumental waste of money, with the government now attempting to achieve interoperability and resilience between fire and rescue control rooms at a cost of £81m. Computer Weekly examines some of the legacy issues of its failure.

The failure of the government's £469m FireControl project has been widely condemned as a monumental waste of money, with the government now attempting to achieve interoperability and resilience between fire and rescue control rooms at a cost of £81m. Computer Weekly examines some of the legacy issues of its failure.

When the canned FireControl project was roundly slammed by a recent National Audit Office (NAO) report and Public Accounts Committee (PAC) as a comprehensive failure, few were surprised. Even before the project was shelved at the end of 2010 there had been widespread speculation the FireControl project would be wound down by government.

Duncan Milligan, head of communications at the Fire Brigades Union, says much of the findings had been well-known for some time.

"The government had little knowledge of how the fire service works, was advised by consultants with no knowledge of how it works and then awarded the contract to a company with no experience of how to supply and instal fire control system," he said.

There were never any finalised specifications given to the contractor and such specifications as were given resulted in the provision of the wrong software. All of this was approved without any reference back to the fire service, added Duncan Milligan.

Many local fire authorities didn't upgrade their control rooms until after 2005 because they waited for the new systems promised under FireControl. Consequently, some had gone well beyond their retirement age. In an attempt to address this, the government has announced a £81m fund, with each service eligible to bid for up to £1.8m before November.

Milligan welcomed the fund but said the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) was concerned about the short timescale for departments to make bids. "It's not much time, especially with the summer holidays coming up. There is a danger of repeat mistakes if these bids are forced to be made too quickly," Milligan said.

While Milligan supports the NAO and PAC findings, he is concerned that FireControl fits an all-too-typical pattern of failed government IT projects. "We can't keep waiting for these reports. If one thing needs to be highlighted from this, it is that there were a lot of people behind the scenes raising serious problems about this project and they were systematically ignored," Milligan said.

Everything about this project was a chronicle of a disaster foretold, added Milligan. "The problems were well known for a long time, yet it somehow limped on. If this was obvious to the people on the ground, why wasn't it to the people with supposedly more technical expertise?"

The other area of concern regarding the project's legacy, is the estimated £342m long-term rental costs its nine purpose-built control rooms are locked into until 2033.

The NAO report recommends the Department for Communities and Local Government work closely with local fire and rescue services to encourage them to utilise regional control centres. Where this is unlikely, the department should examine ways to maximise utilisation by exploring demand from other public and private sector bodies. But whether such expensive, custom-built buildings can be leased for other purposes without a significant loss remains to be seen.

Small scales

George Godliman, managing director at control room specialist Fortek, said the company recently rolled out an IT control room project across fire and rescue services in Wales at a cost of £2m to the Welsh Assembly.

"FireControl was massively ambitious and involved huge change in working practices. It was a business and people issues problem. I can't honestly believe it was the technology," George Godliman said.

Godliman says the Wales project was easier to fulfil, as the country had already undergone a process of regionalisation in its fire services when its nine fire services were reduced to just three.

There is almost no comparison between the projects in terms of their scale, technology change and attitude to working with users, he said: "In a way it is inappropriate to say we delivered in Wales what EADS couldn't in England."

Godliman believes the government must address future projects on much smaller scales and properly engage users.

"I don't think there's anything new from this. Why do they make it so bloody complicated? All you need is a system to answer phones and send out fire engines. What we were trying to do in Wales was simple and we made sure we engaged with the users through regular monthly meetings," Godliman said.

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