When Fire minister Bob Neill announced in December 2010 that the FiReControl project was to be scrapped, the decision was welcomed in several quarters and perhaps most notably by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which had campaigned against the project since it was first announced.
The multimillion pound scheme, which began in 2004 and cost more than £225m, was part of the previous Government’s Fire and Resilience Programme to replace the 46 fire control centres in England with a resilient network of nine regional control centres.
The plan was to have the new sites running in conjunction with FireLink, the private TETRA radio network developed by Airwave to support both voice and data communication and replace the old individual analogue systems of the past. According to Neill, the project was canned amid delays and escalating costs that the Government said could no longer be footed by the taxpayer.
Fire control objectives
However, the decision to halt the project and terminate the deal with its main contractor Cassidian has raised several questions within the fire and rescue community as to what fire control objectives now need to be achieved and how these can be accomplished in light of the cancellation of FiReControl.
Yet, already, Olaf Baars, deputy chief fire officer for Royal Berkshire Fire And Rescue and technical lead on FiReControl for The Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA), believes that the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) is attempting to gloss over some key facts.
‘Whilst DCLG are saying that FireLink is all done and dusted and all rolled out, they are conveniently forgetting that before FiReControl came along we were going to have full voice and data connectivity in our control rooms and also an interoperable mobile data system across the country,’ he says.
‘Now those two elements were taken out of FireLink and moved across to FiReControl. So with the cancellation of this it is imperative that to get what we intended from Airwave we now need to get that voice and data connection and have that mobile data platform.’
Voice and data connectivity
The problem here, of course, is that full voice and data connectivity to control rooms is very expensive and for most it is difficult to understand how, in the current economic climate, you could warrant the 46 individual control rooms.
‘DCLG are saying that if you want your voice and data connectivity there won’t be much money to spend on anything else and I think they are right,’ adds Baars. ‘We recognise that.’
In its consultation paper, ‘The future of fire and rescue control services in England’, the Government favours a scenario under which fire and rescue authorities would look for greater collaboration and sharing of control services, encouraged by some support from central government, and some are already moving in this direction.
However, a spokesperson for the DCLG says individual authorities will now make their own choices and that no solution will be imposed upon them, adding: ‘Some may occupy the purpose-built control centres. London, for example, is moving ahead with a plan to ‘lift and shift’ its current control room and some other functions into the new control centre at Merton.
‘The original objectives were to improve resilience, efficiency and the technology available to the fire and rescue services,’ he adds. ‘How these can be achieved now is a question in the consultation. Early indications are that upgrades to technology made since the project began and plans being developed will go some way to achieving these objectives.’
Neil Moore, Head of ICT, Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, argues that it’s business as usual though.
‘In terms of national resilience, some of the objectives are a bit tenuous in the sense that it wasn’t really ever clear, at least in my mind, how the regionalisation of control was going to bring greater national co-ordination benefits to the service, because we already do that with big incidents like flooding, for example. The kind of command structure that’s in place seems to be able to deal with that,’ he adds.
‘In my experience, firefighters and most CFOs feel that radio control should be local and not regional for a host of local knowledge reasons,’ affirms John Whitcomb, sales manager for Western Europe at Zetron.
‘Remember fire control rooms are nothing like police control rooms where there are many hundreds or thousands of personnel and vehicles being deployed on an hourly basis, with many long and sometimes drawn out radio and telephone calls,’ he says.
‘In the years that the regional fire project has been ongoing, things have moved on, and the trend is toward devolution of central control and powers generally and more towards local control,’ he adds. ‘This is reflected in national and regional government decisions over recent years.’
Mohammed Rafiq, sector marketing manager, Airwave, says that the need for fire and rescue services to maintain autonomy and decision making powers over their local areas is clear.
‘Yet, in the midst of tightened public sector budgets, there are cashable savings to be made from sharing services with local brigades,’ he says.
Having delivered FireLink to Great Britain’s fire and rescue services, Rafiq says that 57 fire and rescue services now enjoy the benefits of being connected to the largest digital critical communications network in the world, alongside Britain’s police forces and ambulance services.
He adds: ‘This secure and resilient communications service now provides a common platform from which crews, vehicles and control rooms can communicate efficiently and effectively.’
Whitcomb believes that many fire and rescue services can just as easily have their operational requirements met with open standard equipment from suppliers around the world.
‘They can easily integrate their telephony call handling with their radio comms for a relatively low cost per operator position,’ he adds. ‘There are many reference sites to back up this claim, so local UK fire and rescue do not need to spend money and more time reinventing the wheel.
‘The cost saving objective is still with all of us, especially now we know what the impact of the comprehensive spending review is,’ adds Moore. ‘
There is a very real cost driver that not only applies to command and control systems but everything else we do.’
Indeed, it seems that the name of the game is collaboration and DCLG has indicated that if there is any funding to be had, the likelihood is that it will be given to those fire and rescue services collaborating within the public sector.
Collaborative control room
In Berkshire, Baars says he has officer and member commitments to work towards a collaborative control room on the basis of Thames Valley or larger, meaning the inclusion of ambulances is a possibility.
He adds: ‘We were only the second brigade in the country to introduce mobile data systems back in around 2000, and we always hung onto the fact that a new radio system was coming and we would use that for the data bearer and all sorts of other things that we hung on FireControl.
‘Seven years on, our mobile data system is in its second generation and we still don’t