Anton Gvozdikov - Fotolia

Home Office confident in Emergency Services Network delivery despite risks

The Public Accounts Committee has begun its inquiry into the controversial Emergency Services Network, taking evidence from suppliers, emergency services and the Home Office

Home Office officials in charge of the controversial Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP) have told MPs they are still confident the new Emergency Services Network (ESN) can be delivered on time despite a series of delays.

Delivering evidence to a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) hearing, Stephen Webb, senior responsible owner for the ESMCP, said: “I am very confident the programme is deliverable. We are currently working on revised plans for the timescale, but overall I am very confident we will get in close to the timescale we previously agreed. There will be a little slippage, I accept that.”

ESN is a 4G mobile network supplied by EE that will replace the outdated Airwave terrestrial trunked radio (Tetra) network currently used by police, fire and ambulance services.

The PAC launched an inquiry into the ESMCP in October 2016 after the National Audit Office (NAO) raised concerns that the project was inherently high-risk given that in the future, people’s lives will depend on the availability of a 4G mobile network.

Webb accepted the NAO’s findings, but said the risks were more logistical than technological, and largely related to the provision of new mobile masts needed in the remotest and least populated parts of the country. He pointed out that most of the mobile masts needed to support the ESN were ready now, and that the remaining work was “not as daunting as it maybe seems”.

Members of the PAC, which is chaired by Labour’s Meg Hillier, expressed their concern that the risks associated with the ESN appeared to echo other government IT failures, such as e-Borders, FireControl and the NHS National Programme for IT, all of which collapsed amid escalating costs and recriminations.

Of particular concern to the committee was the notion that because public safety is at stake, individual emergency services organisations must naturally be fully satisfied that the ESN works and is fit for purpose before the Tetra network is mothballed in 2020.

Peter Aykroyd, area manager of corporate services for Derbyshire Fire and Rescue, said he would seek assurance on coverage, resilience and reliability before recommending moving to the 4G service. “Key for me is good early flow of information and that we are kept informed of roll-out progress so we can get out and test that network,” he said. “Investment in assurance and testing will pay dividends later on.”

Jo Beresford-Robinson, area manager and ESN programme manager at East Midlands Fire, which oversees the fire brigades of five counties, including Derbyshire, echoed Aykroyd’s view.

“We will need assurance before our chiefs sign up to it, so nobody will be switching over until we are happy that we’ve got the same service or a better service than Airwave is currently providing,” she said.

Read more about ESN

The Department for Communities and Local Government extended the lifetime of the fire services’ Firelink Tetra network until the last possible moment almost 18 months ago.

Vincent Kennedy, vice-president and general manager of Motorola Solutions UK, which is delivering the ESN’s user services systems integration, management and support element, said planning was already in progress to start dismantling the Tetra network on a regional basis.

But in order to notify his supply chain and set in motion a plan to keep parts of the Tetra network running after 31 December 2019, Kennedy said Motorola would need to have notice of intent to extend specific Airwave contracts to run by the end of 2018 at the very latest.

“You could have a couple of regions running over [into 2020], but an unplanned long extension would be very difficult,” he said. “We have a plan and I know how I can keep some regions running … but we don’t know if it will happen and which regions it would be.

“It is not possible to extend everything for a year.”

This raises the very real concern of any number of emergency services organisations quite reasonably throwing a spanner in the works after the cut-off date by claiming the EE network is not good enough for what they need it to do.

Derbyshire Fire and Rescue’s Aykroyd conceded that there was some nervousness that the 2019 switch-off date was optimistic, but said it was too early to give a definitive answer.

Beresford-Robinson said East Midlands Fire hoped to be using the ESN in 2018, but she didn’t know that it necessarily expected to do so in that timeframe.

Read more on Mobile networks