Firefighters to UK Home Office: Yeah, maybe don't turn off emergency comms network before replacement is ready

Prospects of cursed ESN project still murky for customers-to-be

As if the UK's emergency services didn't have enough on their plate, the troubled plan to replace their communication network appears to be hitting choppy waters once more.

In a pithy document released earlier this month [PDF], Buckinghamshire & Milton Keynes Fire Authority pointed out that the current system, Airwave, is set to be turned off well before the deadline for rolling out the new Emergency Services Network (ESN), which is intended to provide fully featured voice and data comms for fire, rescue, police and ambulance services across the UK.

"The latest national version [of the National Delivery Plan] released in April 2020 indicates that all Fire Services will have transitioned from the Airwave system onto the ESN by Q4 2024," it said. "This would mean that the earliest point at which the Airwave system can be switched off would be Q4 2024, however the official date for this is still December 2022."

That is the current plan, as far as this particular fire service sees it. But it also hints at another proposal regarding the network's future, which "shows the earliest possible date for Airwave switch off as being Q4 2024 however this has not officially [been] confirmed at this stage".

The fire service said it would also like to see a year pass between the ESN going live and Airwave turning off.

The document also shows that detailed business cases for the whole show is yet to materialise. Remember, this is a system that was supposed to be implemented by <checks notes> 2017. Although to be fair, the project was completely revised in 2018.

"The Full Business Case was due to have been completed early in 2020 and should have passed through various governance stages in order to be released around May 2020," the Buckinghamshire document said. "However, we have received notification that it will not now be released for some time. This is in part due to Programme resources being re-assigned to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, assessment of impact of the pandemic and how it might affect ways of working and the delivery of the various aspects of the project."

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The ESN will provide police, fire services and ambulance crews with an innovative mobile-based communications system that can transform their emergency response. We will continue to monitor progress to ensure the successful delivery of this programme.”

The central government department said that if Airwave was required after December 2022, then it would "extend the existing contract with Motorola, for the additional period, to minimise the cost and disruption to operational Users of Airwave".

The spox added that work on the full business case was paused to make resources available to support the departmental response to COVID-19. "This work has now resumed and the FBC will enter formal approvals governance in the Autumn."

Anyone surprised at the gigantean cock-up at the centre of this plan for a piece of communication infrastructure vital to public safety might be unfamiliar with the £3bn overspend and five-year delay that has attracted no less than eight appearances before the Public Accounts Committee (the UK's Parliamentary spending watchdog) and been the subject of two National Audit Office reports.

Realising the new system would not be ready in time, the Home Office shifted to extending contracts to support the old kit, and implement the new system.

In March, Capita won a contract to ensure existing Airwave emergency radios can work with the ESN, which is set to run on EE's 4G network.

In June last year, the Home Office extended its ESN contract with Motorola until December 2024, at an additional cost of £82m, bringing the total value to £401m.

Given the apparent state of the project, concerns that 4G might not even be the right technology for it, and the pandemic-related disruption, no one would be surprised to see further delays, not least its main customers.

In a member meeting report [PDF] from March, the Fire Services Management Committee of the Local Government Association said: "Work is ongoing on deployment planning, but there remain a number of areas where greater certainty or clarity is required to provide individual, sector and (three emergency services) implementations plans of higher confidence."

We suppose those set to use the ESN might be more confident if the Home Office was not currently planning to turn off the old system before the rollout of the new one is due to finish. ®

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