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Union attacks fire-brigade control room IT modernisation

Claims of 'meltdown' not ideal for fire service project

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Union officials have launched a public attack on a government networking and IT project designed to reduce the number of fire-brigade control rooms from 46 to 9. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) says that the Fire and Resilience Control (FiReControl) project is in "meltdown" and can't possibly be ready in time for the London Olympics. The union says the project should be scrapped.

According to the FBU, "the Department for Communities and Local Government is considering a further 10 month delay" to FiReControl. A union statement says that "fire service control staff in a number of regions across England started to be briefed about the news last week although no public announcement has been made".

The FiReControl project is supposed to replace the existing 46 fire service control rooms with 9 regional centres, all using a common secure network and designed to cope with major disasters or crises. The new centres would be linked to tracking and comms equipment aboard fire-service appliances and vehicles, and would roll out various IT enhancements such as a database of fire-hydrant locations.

At present, very little of this exists. Many of the current control rooms have nothing but voice comms and paper maps, and it may be all but impossible for other controllers to take over in the event of a control room going off the air or having to shut down. The planned Regional Control Centres (RCCs) would easily be able to take over from each other in the event of one of them going offline - for instance due to a catastrophic flood, fire, network outage, power failure or whatever.

According to the FBU, however, FiReControl has been subject to repeated delays prior to the latest ones announced last week. The union says that the "£1.4bn" project should now be abandoned.

"The project is in meltdown and may not be properly tested and in place for the 2012 Olympics, even if they can make it work," says FBU general secretary Matt Wrack.

"The options being looked at are farcical... The new ministers need to end it now to give the fire service certainty and end the anxiety being caused to control room staff."

The FBU represents control room personnel as well as firefighters.

According to the Department for Communities and Local Government, in charge of the FiReControl plan, the project's budget is actually £380m rather than £1.4bn, and it is running somewhere between five and nine months late. The Reg asked a DCLG spokesperson what job losses were likely with the shift from 46 control centres to 9.

"You have to bear in mind that the RCCs will be quite different to the 46 little control rooms there are now," she said. "There will be more staff employed at an RCC than there would be at most of the current control rooms."

However she declined to discuss actual numbers, saying "staffing is down to the local-authority controlled companies that will run the RCCs."

The DCLG website adds that the aim is to transfer existing staff to the new RCCs where possible. However, it seems fair to say that the FBU is likely to lose a significant number of members if FiReControl goes ahead. Which may have something to do with the simultaneous appearance of this Observer article and this FBU press release regarding FiReControl yesterday. ®

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