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PAC: Plans to replace emergency services comms pose ‘catastrophic’ risk to public safety

Plans to replace part of the existing communications system for the emergency services could strike a “major, potentially catastrophic blow to the ability of our emergency services to carry out their job and keep citizens safe”, according to the influential Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

The government intends to exchange the current Airwave system that is used by the police, ambulance and fire services with a new Emergency Services Network (ESN) by September 2020.

But in a report, the PAC warned that the government had failed to budget for delays, and did not have proper contingency plans in place to manage any potential obstacles that could cause the project to be pushed back.

A key issue raised by the committee was that the contract with Vodafone, which is a key supplier to Airwave, runs out in March 2020, meaning that an essential component of the communication system will be taken away and lead to Airwave being, in effect, switched off.

This is set to happen six months before the ESN is complete, leaving the emergency services at risk of not being able to communicate with each other during this time.

In the event that this scenario does actually happen, the government’s sole contingency measure is to extend Vodafone’s contract, something that PAC says may not be possible.

MPs in the committee also stated that delays to moving to the ESN could cost taxpayers around £475m, echoing a similar warning issued by the National Audit Office last year about the technical and financial challenges of changing the system.

“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,” the report read.

“We are greatly concerned that the start date for the new system for communication—the ESN—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.”

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the PAC added: “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.”

PSE contacted the Home Office for comment but at the time of writing had not received a response.

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