Parliamentary committee raises question over the technology and says timescale and budget look wrong
Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has raised an alarm over the timescale and budget for the Emergency Services Network (ESN), the voice and data exchange network for police, fire and ambulance services.
In a newly published report on the programme, the committee says the Home Office’s target date to have the ESN fully operational by December 2019 is looking unrealistic, may require more testing and assurance work, and that the department has not budgeted for any extra roll out time.
The ESN is being developed to replace the existing Airwave network for emergency services, using EE’s 4G mobile network and other technology that is still being developed. The PAC report says that, while this should save money and ultimately improve the emergency services’ mobile capabilities, it has concerns around the progress of the programme.
It points to an earlier critical report by the National Audit Office that said the programme was 5-10 months behind schedule, and says the Home Office has acknowledged that “some slippage would occur”. At the same time, the transition period for each region has been cut from 30 to 27 months, which it says leaves little time for contingency and running the ESN alongside Airwave.
This has prompted the PAC to urge the Home Office to reassess the timescales for the programme.
Extra funds needed
It adds that the budget, estimated at £2.6 billion up to the end of 2019, would require an extra £475 million for each year of delay, but that the department has not yet made plans for this. The PAC says it wants to be updated on the situation by September of this year.
The report also calls for independent testing of the technology to ensure the ESN works under pressure in a live environment, and that the Home Office should deal with worries about the security of the communications on the London Underground.
Meg Hillier (pictured), chair of the PAC, said: “It is absolutely right that emergency services will not commit to using ESN in potentially life-or-death situations until they are convinced it works.
“Questions continue to hang over the technology, not least how it will operate on underground rail systems in London and elsewhere—high risk environments that present unique challenges in emergencies. These must be addressed urgently.”
But she added encouraging words about the stability of the programme team, saying it is good that its chief has been in the role since 2011.
In response to the criticisms, the Home Office acknowledged it will not be able to begin testing the network transition until spring 2018, but said it is working with closely with EE and the network services supplier Motorola to determine the best approach, and believes the change will begin in the middle of next year.
If emergency services decide they are not ready for the transition by December 2019 it has made arrangements to extend Airwave coverage beyond that date.
In addition, it said it regularly reviews its contingency plans and cost estimates, including continuing use of the existing network if necessary.
A spokesperson said: “Police, fire and rescue and ambulance crews will be able to do their work more effectively with ESN and the new system will deliver significant savings for the taxpayer.
“The timescales are ambitious because we want to get the most from technology that will help save lives, but we are clear that no risks will be taken with public safety and the existing Airwave system will continue until transition on to ESN is completed.”