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Public safety threatened by possible break in emergency communications

21 April 2017

The Public Accounts Committee report highlights new and serious concerns about the provision of emergency service communications in Great Britain.

Government has not put in place contingency plans for delays 

In the report, the Committee warns that a plan to take part of the existing communications system out of service early "strikes a major, potentially catastrophic blow to the ability of our emergency services to carry out their job and keep citizens safe".

Government intends to replace the Airwave system currently used by police, fire and ambulance services with a new Emergency Services Network (ESN).

The Committee concluded in a report on the programme in January that it was unlikely the December 2019 target date for delivering ESN would be met and that the Home Office needed to reassess its timescales.

It also concluded the Department had not budgeted for delays, nor put in place detailed contingency plans to manage them.

Extending Airwave contracts for nine months might not be possible

Following the Committee's evidence session in November last year the Department reported that ESN will be delayed by nine months until September 2020.

It has also now come to light that extending the Airwave contracts, the Department's sole mitigation against delay in putting the new system in place, might not be possible.

In January, Motorola informed the Committee that Vodafone, a key supplier to Airwave, will from March 2020 stop providing an important piece of infrastructure that Airwave requires to function, essentially turning it off.

This raised the possibility that emergency services may not be able to communicate with each other after March 2020 until transition to ESN is complete in September 2020.

"Significant and imminent risk" of providing underground coverage

This report, informed by further evidence taken in February, calls on the Department to "urgently engage" with Motorola and Vodafone on the options for resolving the Airwave issue.

It should provide the Committee with regular updates on progress and estimates of any additional costs to the taxpayer.

Among its other conclusions the Committee highlights the "significant and imminent risk" to the ESN programme of providing emergency communications underground.

It calls on Transport for London and the Department to work together urgently to ensure there will be effective network coverage to enable this.

Chairs comment

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the PAC, said:

"The potential consequences of a six-month gap in emergency service communications are unthinkable.

Government needs to tackle this now or the result will be quite simply a tragedy in waiting.

Addressing this and other serious concerns about ESN raised by our Committee today and in January are significant challenges for the new management at the Home Office."

Report summary

In the event of an emergency, including a terrorist attack, the need for the emergency services to communicate is an essential part of keeping the public safe.

We are greatly concerned that the start date for the new system for communication—the Emergency Services Network—is not only delayed but is not likely to be deliverable.

The Home Office was running the planned programme to ambitiously tight deadlines which have now slipped.

Inevitable that taxpayers will be paying with no certainty of delivery

The Department's contingency measure to manage the transition to the new system was to extend Airwave month by month until the new system was in place.

The news that part of the existing Airwave system will be taken out of service early strikes a major, potentially catastrophic blow to the ability of our emergency services to carry out their job and keep citizens safe.

In addition it now seems inevitable that taxpayers will also be paying substantial additional sums, with no certainty of delivery.

The change of leadership with a new Permanent Secretary at the Home Office adds to our concerns.

Further information

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