Monday, 22 December 2008

FiReControl – success or failure?

One question I was asked following my blog post on Fatally flawed Audit Commission report on Fire Services, given my experience in supplying mobilisation systems to Fire Brigades when in IAL, what was for my view on the current FiReControl project to close 46 emergency fire control rooms in England and move to 9 high-tech regional centres?

I think it’s too early to say whether the project is a success or not. Operationally, I think there is a very strong argument for having just 9 regional centres. Given the likely use of leading edge technology, and availability of specialised, well-trained control room staff, in the long term the project should both improve operational efficiency and save on annual running costs (although the Government appears to have now conceded that costs will actually increase by over £3.5m per annum).

However, the project itself smacks of Government’s usual inability to follow best practices when procuring new IT systems. As with the current ill-fated NHS computerisation projects, I’m told it has failed to involve key users in its design early enough, initially imposed a massively optimistic timescale for implementation, and seemingly failed to allow any contingencies in its plans and budgets.

The project is currently way over budget and running some 3 years behind schedule, such that there is now a serious risk that it will not be completed in time for the 2012 Olympics. As I understand it the design of some of the key software is still at a prototype stage, a stage which is throwing up serious gaps between the initial statement of requirements and what operational users actually need.

Apart from the obvious problems of getting systems from several suppliers working properly together, the main problem appears to be with the core Mobilisation & Resource Management System (MRMS), which records incidents, identifies and mobilises appropriate resources, and supports these resources during the incident. Although the MRMS is already in use with the Swedish Emergency Services and all police forces in Romania and Spain, it apparently lacks exposure to the UK market. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see even more delays announced...

So, overall, my answer is that long term FiReControl should be a success, but in the short-term I predict further delays, significant technical and operational problems during the first months of operation, and consequent pressure from interested parties to stop the roll-out. I just hope that I’m wrong, the technology works, and that the project is successful – we need it to work.

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