Fire chiefs admit to having “absolutely no idea” when a much delayed and costly new telecoms system for the emergency services will be in place.
In the meantime, the current mobile system being used by Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes Fire Authority and other emergency services is having its life extended.
“We have absolutely no idea what is happening with this system,” said Marie Crothers, the authority’s programme manager at the executive committee meeting on Wednesday.
Her report says the national Emergency Services Mobile Communications
Programme (ESMCP) is estimated to now cost £9.3billion, which is £3.1billion more than the original predicted cost. But even this sky-high figure is uncertain.
The current Airwave system was originally planned to be switched off in December 2019, however, this has now been extended to December
2022. In the meantime, transitional funding for emergency services in the Bucks region has been first withheld and then released, and made available to spend.
Cllr Douglas McCall, the Milton Keynes Lib Dem leader, said: “How long can we keep the existing system going, when will it become old and inoperable?
“Our main issue is service delivery. If you can’t contact people, we are in trouble.”
Marie Crothers replied that the current Airwave system is robust but relies on voice and does not allow for data to be transferred. “I am fully reassured that it is robust enough to continue in use,” she said.
Cllr David Hopkins, a Milton Keynes Conservative, said: “The Government, any Government, is unable to run any national IT project and this is another example."
Committee chairman, Buckinghamshire Conservative, Cllr Lesley Clarke OBE, said: “It is a worry and we are keeping our eyes on it and looking at what we can do. It is amazing that the business case has not even been signed off.”
And Milton Keynes Council leader, Labour’s Cllr Pete Marland warned that the new system was in danger of arriving so late that the 4G connectivity would be being switched off, in favour of emerging 5G.
Background papers reveal technological challenges, including the new Emergency Service Network’s inability to make “near-instant calls at the push of a button, which is critical to the police.”