Latest Public Sector News

15.09.16

Warning over ‘high risk’ new emergency services network

Emergency services are due to be communicating on a commercial 4G network by 2019 despite significant concerns about its safety.

A new report from the National Audit Office (NAO) found that the government is trying to move the communications network used by police, fire and ambulance services from Airwave to the Emergency Services Network (ESN) in an unprecedented move that carries significant risks.

Whilst Airwave is specifically for public sector use, ESN will use an existing 4G network, provided by Motorola, EE and Kellogg Brown and Root, with estimated savings of £3.6bn over 17 years.

But Sir Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “The need to save money and get out of a difficult commercial relationship has led the government to try and move to an approach that is not yet used nationwide anywhere in the world.

“The programme remains inherently high risk and while steps have been taken to manage these risks we are concerned that these are under-rated in the Home Office and elsewhere. The programme needs to put in place more independent testing and assurance regimes for its technical solution and urgently improve its approach to engaging with the emergency services.”

Implementing ESN will involve significant technical challenges, including extending EE’s coverage of Great Britain from 70% to 97%, and developing handheld and vehicle-mounted devices that will work with ESN, which don’t currently exist.

It will not be compulsory for emergency services to adopt ESN until it is “at least as good as Airwave”.

However, the auditor said this could mean that the programme fails to deliver the expected benefits if even a small number of emergency services choose not to adopt it immediately.

Furthermore, it said the programme has adopted a “very ambitious” timetable despite the risks, with implementation of ESN due to start in September 2017 and be completed by December 2019.

While programme officials had insisted the timeline includes enough space for contingency measures, emergency services leaders told the NAO that it would give them little time to plan or learn lessons from each other.

The bulk of financial risks from delays in transition fall on emergency services, not the programme.

Rehana Azam, national secretary of GMB, said: “It is totally unacceptable to put lives at risk with untried cost-cutting exercises.”

However, a Home Office spokesperson said: “As the National Audit Office’s report has itself concluded, ESN is the right direction strategically for maximising these benefits.

“The timescale for ESN is deliberately ambitious because we want to maximise the benefits it will bring to the public and we have comprehensive risk management tools in place as well as the best possible expertise to design, build, test and roll out the new network.”

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