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Government claims resilience boost for 999 call system

Emergency service vehicle blue light
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The UK Government has announced a series of measures to improve the resilience of the 999 emergency call handling system, following a breakdown caused by a software fault in June of last year.

The incident disrupted the Public Emergency Call Service (PECS) for over eight hours on 25 June, with calls disconnecting or failing to connect to the call handling platform managed by BT. It was estimated that this prevented over 9,600 callers from accessing ambulance, police and fire services.

BT published its own report on the incident the following month, saying it was due to a complex software issue that had never been seen through its continuous testing regime, and which caused caching and the temporary breakdown of the service.

It said it had identified the fault, put a robust temporary fix in place, and was testing a permanent fix.

The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and the Cabinet Office have now jointly published a post-incident review that outlines the causes of the incident, along with recommendations to strengthen the end-to-end PECS system and responses for any future incidents.

Emphasis on coordination

Their announcement highlighted the setting up of a notification system between BT, the emergency services and the UK Government to ensure there is a coordinated response, and a cross-government communication plan to issue public advice on how to reach the services in the “unlikely event” of a future incident. This is expected to be completed by the end of April.

The Cabinet Office will coordinate efforts to provide more clarity on responsibilities and accountability for the 999 system’s resilience to a range of challenges. These include cyber attacks, natural disasters, high numbers of calls and simultaneous incidents, with the aim of ensuring the system is robust and can effectively respond to a wide range of emergency scenarios.   

It will also coordinate an exercise to test the resilience of the system and the 999 Strategic Incident Group – a dedicated cross-system incident notification and response protocol.

Public safety paramount

Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology Michelle Donelan said: “The incident in June of last year marked the first significant disruption to the 999 system in nearly 90 years. We are determined to prevent history from repeating itself, with public safety being absolutely paramount.

“This is why, following a thorough review of the incident, we are working with BT to establish enhanced resilience measures, ensuring the UK is always prepared to effectively address major emergencies.” 

Howard Watson, chief security and networks officer at BT Group, said: “The level of disruption to the service on Sunday 25 June 2023 has never been seen before and we are sincerely sorry for the distress caused.

“While no technology is 100% resilient, we have built a highly robust network with multiple layers of protection to connect the public to blue light services in their time of need.”


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