Suffolk Council Rush To Sell Off Fire Control Centre

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FBU demonstration in London on September 16 against fire service cuts
FBU demonstration in London on September 16 against fire service cuts

‘Without any prior public consultation, Suffolk county councillors have rushed through plans to sell-off the Ipswich fire control centre and get emergency fire calls answered outside the county’, the FBU said on Tuesday.

It added that this came ‘on the same day the government killed off deeply-flawed plans to introduce Regional fire control centres (RCC) throughout England’.

The Fire Brigades Union says Suffolk 999 fire control staff have been ‘stabbed in the back’ by their own fire chiefs and some county councillors.

Lib Dem and Labour councillors opposed the plans to close the Suffolk fire control room but were out-voted 10 to 4 by the Tory majority on the Scrutiny Committee.

The union is urging councillors to think again before rushing ‘lemming-like’ into the closure and sell-off plan – which will see all 999 fire calls from Suffolk picked up in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire.

The FBU warns the move threatens to compromise public safety and is urging politicians and the public to join its campaign to keep Suffolk 999 fire calls answered in Suffolk and for emergency rescue operations to remain under the local control and local knowledge of Suffolk’s own control staff in their own control room.

The FBU added: ‘The council’s controversial decision was taken on Monday 20th December, less than an hour before ministers finally pulled the plug on the previous government’s plan to replace all 46 locally accountable fire control centres across England with only 9 regional fire control centres.

‘The botched regional project has already cost taxpayers £1.3 billion and flies in the face of the “localism” embraced by the Conservative dominated government.

‘The death of the regional project, criticised by the Fire Brigades Union since it was announced seven years ago, has been expected since mid-November.

‘The botched project was untried, untested and unaccountable to local communities. The union has warned consistently that the local knowledge of local control staff helps save lives.’

Rather than learn from the RCC fiasco, Suffolk County councillors seem intent on ‘jumping feet first into similarly untried, untested and exceedingly dangerous waters’, Keith Handscomb, FBU executive member for East Anglia said.

Her added: ‘The FBU was a lone voice of professional opposition from the very start and we have been proven right about the regional control centre project.

‘It failed and has cost the tax-payer £1.3 billion. We now urge Suffolk County Council to listen to our professional concerns and avoid making the same mistakes.

‘There are serious concerns over how such a move could maintain the high standards of 999 service currently delivered locally in Suffolk can be maintained from a distant part of another county.’

Handscomb praised Suffolk control members for maintaining their professionalism in delivering 999 services to the public, despite the uncertainties of the RCC project hanging over them for the past seven years.

He concluded: ‘Its gut-wrenching that on the same day the Coalition government finally killed off the discredited regional project, our members have been told their own Suffolk councillors have rushed through their decision to close Suffolk’s own emergency fire control.

‘This is all about political ideology and will do nothing to improve the public’s frontline emergency service.’

Following Monday’s announcement by the fire minister to scrap the FiReControl scheme, Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary said: ‘I welcome this decision – it’s long overdue.

‘For seven years the Fire Brigades Union has been sounding the alarm about this project, often as a lone voice, and this decision shows that we were right.

‘While the project was going on, staff in emergency fire control have been treated appallingly, and I hope that, at long last, their security of employment can be confirmed.’

Sharon Riley, FBU executive council member for control said: ‘The scrapping of the FiReControl Project has vindicated the FBU’s position that this was not the best way to ensure resilience and excellence in our Fire Controls.

‘My members will now be hoping for investment in the existing Emergency Controls which is, in some cases, long overdue.’

In a written statement to parliament on Monday, fire minister Bob Neill said that he had reached agreement with the main contractor Cassidian (formerly EADS Defence & Security) to cancel the project with immediate effect, because the project requirements cannot be delivered to an acceptable timeframe.

Neill told parliament: ‘I would like to inform the House about recent developments on the FiReControl project.

This is the third part of the last Government’s resilience programme and set out to replace the stand-alone control rooms in England’s fire and rescue services with a national network of nine control centres.

‘The aim was to improve national resilience, interoperability and efficiency as well as to enhance the technology available to the fire and rescue service.

‘Many hon. Members will be aware that, for some time, the project has experienced delays and delivery problems.

‘The progress of the project has caused serious concern, and so in June this year I made it clear to the main FiReControl contractor, Cassidian (formerly EADS Defence and Security), that the main IT system must now be delivered to time, cost and quality.

‘At this point, we activated a key milestone in their contract requiring the main IT system to be completed in three control centres by mid-2011.

‘We told Cassidian that no additional taxpayers’ money could be invested in this project, nor would delivery of a system of reduced quality or functionality be acceptable.

‘Following extensive discussion with Cassidian, we have jointly concluded, with regret, that the requirements of the project cannot be delivered to an acceptable time frame.

‘Therefore the best outcome for the taxpayer and the fire and rescue community is for the contract to be terminated with immediate effect. Cassidian and the Department for Communities and Local Government have reached an acceptable settlement over this although the details will remain commercially confidential.’

He added: ‘Over the next few weeks we intend to identify the extent to which any legacy assets from the project, including the control centre buildings, can be used for the benefit of the fire and rescue service and local communities in future.

‘We will also be making arrangements for maintaining products already delivered.

‘The Department will cease funding activities directly associated with the project as quickly as is compatible with organising an orderly closing down of the project.

‘We recognise that fire and rescue authorities will now wish to review their control arrangements in the light of today’s decision. This Government do not intend to impose any solution for the future of control room services.

‘We will, however, start to consult the fire and rescue sector soon on how best the Government can support them, if at all, in developing their alternative plans based on the principles of localism, ensuring public safety, building up national resilience and delivering value for taxpayers’ money.’

Fire Control has been beset with delays and technical problems, and the original project cost escalating by millions of pounds.

In April, a select committee of MPs said the project had been inadequately planned, poorly executed and badly managed.

In June, Neill announced that Fire Control was under review, and that the project, if it was to survive, would have to be delivered on time and to budget without cutting any corners.

In August, the BBC revealed that £1m a month was being wasted on maintaining the nine regional control centres which lay unused.

In September, Neill claimed that communication equipment supplied to fire stations was a fire hazard itself, and that relations with Cassidian had become so bad that a team representing fire and rescue service and the Department of Communities and Local Government has been banished to portakabins in the car park of the company’s Newport office.