back to article Fire Brigades Union warns of wonky IT causing dangerous delays in 999 control rooms

IT failures in emergency fire control rooms are creating dangerous delays, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has warned. The North West Fire Control Service and the East Coast & Hertfordshire Control Room Consortium (ECC) are experiencing ongoing issues with their mobilisation systems, according to the British union. Failures of …

  1. Pascal Monett Silver badge
    FAIL

    "Capita [..] declined to comment"

    We don't need a comment. It's Crapita, that says it all.

  2. Aladdin Sane
    Mushroom

    Fuck Capita

    See title.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

    15 years ago the Labour gov't started a £multi-million project to consolidate all 46 disparate Fire & Rescue Service call centres (each with a backup call centre, so another 46!) to 9 interconnected regional super control centres, called FiReControl, run by EADS (the owners of Airbus).

    It would have been possible for a 999 caller in Devon, to connect to a Scottish call handler, who would dispatch an appliance (fire engine to you and me) from Birmingham, all tracked in real time. Multiple call centres could have been nuked and the system was resilient enough to cope.

    But the bleating FBU were dead set against the utterly sensible and rational project, because it would have done away with much of the inefficiency and duplication of the current system, i.e. made some call handlers redundant as small local call centres were shut down. As a union's power is directly proportional to the number of members it has, of course the FBU were against it.

    Well they got their way: they managed to get it written into the contract that the representative user groups had right of veto over every element of the user interface, so they simply killed the project from the inside by making sure agreement over the simplest of things took months and months and agonising months.

    This lead to massive project delays and ever increasing costs, until the plug was pulled. Simples.

    So they should be careful what they wish for.

    1. trolleybus

      Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

      I seem to remember the scenario you suggested - caller in Devon, call centre in Scotland, ambulance despatched from Birmingham - was exactly the problem. For some odd reason there was a feeling that a Scottish call handler might, just possibly, lack local knowledge.

      But you made your anti-union point.

      What could possibly have gone wrong with a huge Government IT project, outsourced to a private contractor? The track record of suck projects had been so good recently.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

        Precisely. Like the time someone called for an ambulance in Somersham, Cambridgeshire, and it was sent to Somersham, Suffolk, some seventy miles away.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

        Of course it would not be ideal, nor indeed normal, for a Scottish call centre to dispatch an appliance from Birmingham to Devon. Just because there's a scenario that isn't perfect, doesn't mean the whole system was bad.

        I was making that point to explain the interconnected, single UK view, robust, and fault tolerant capability of the system. The alternative in the case of the local call centre being nuked, is the current situation where the phone will just ring and ring (if at all) and you're left with no ability to request help.

        At least you could get through to someone, and be told that Plymouth was a gaping crater (an improvement no doubt! ;) ) and the Birmingham fire engine would be a few hours away.

        1. PM from Hell

          Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

          It's very interesting how offensive you manage to be on several levels.

          When the original system, was designed GPS and routing systems were still piss poor and completely ineffective with dealing with road closures etc. Call handlers in rural locations had a huge amount of local knowledge which was used to decide which station would be alerted. The closest station my not be the quickest to respond when there in a Welsh mountain in the way or a river like the Trent if there is a blocked bridge.

          Even now I'm not convinced that an automated system realises which farmyards a fire engine can cut through to bypass a road blockage. Or where there are likely to be delays caused by on-road parking issues in a road through a housing development.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

            Who said anything about losing local knowledge or that the system was entirely automated? Neither would be the case.

            Local call handlers from each call centre would be offered roles in the new regional call centres so that local knowledge wasn't lost, and over time the area that "local knowledge" covers would expand and be shared withing the regional call centre. Besides, it's down the firefighter driving the appliance to decide how to get to a fire, not some call centre handler.

            Remember the 2005 Buncefield Oil Refinery fire in Hertfordshire? Appliances from all over the South and Midlands were shuffled around to enable the 180 firefighters needed to be sent to that fire (e.g. back filling areas that other appliances had been pulled out of). That process of collaboration between many FRS's was managed by fax! In 2005!! Is that the system you're seriously defending?

            1. EnviableOne Silver badge

              Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

              the whole centralisation project was misconcieved, as going from 46 to 9 means that the area covered is far to great for any one person to hold the local knowledge in their head, itslike expecting a london Cabbie to have the same knowledge for the entire south east, its just not possible.

              It may be up to the firefighter to decide the route the appliance takes, but its up to the handler which appliance gets dispatched. The issue with the proposed system was wether station A is more likley to get to the Fire first or Station B and Local knowledge helps with that greatly.

              Buncefield was a major incident, and this would have lead to fire officers being drafted in from all over, its part of the resillience plans that are kept at local and regional level and was planned should an incident at buncefield occur.

              There were regional officers supported by the National Emergency Management Committee based in Cabinet Office Breifing Room A (COBRA) and the system works and is rehearsed.

              and theres nothing wrong with fax, as it is guarenteed delivery, and the documents are legal copies, wheras emailed scans arent, and emails can be deleted.

              The system could be better, and without capita it probably would have been, but the issue is that the systems they have are not fit for purpose, in a world where seconds matter, downtime is not permitted.

              1. dak

                Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

                Faxes are in no way legally defensible and are more fragile than emails.

                I think you confused fax and telex (which is still legally defensible).

        2. Chris G Silver badge

          Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

          I wouldn't want you to design or recommend anything that may affect my life or safety.

          Where local or regional emergency services are needed, local and regional knowledge with robust redundancy built in is the way to save lives and property. An unwieldy top heavy national system would cost lives even in the unlikely event of it saving money.

        3. OurAl

          Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

          In the 1980's a fire service control room was part of my responsibilities.

          There was never an occasion when a phone just rang and rang, B.T. 999 operators have ordered lists of alternative control centres and redirect the call if there is a problem.

          You would be surprised how many callers simply don't know where they are and it is only local knowledge that asks the right questions to identify the right address. Rural locations just add another layer of complexity.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

        As for what went wrong, apart from being sabotaged by the FBU and to a lesser extent the CFOA (the Chief Fire Officers Association), it was the usual for a large gov't IT project:

        1) The scope was over ambitious: "This is an opportunity of a lifetime, a once in a generation chance to ask for everything we want, we won't get this chance again." If memory serves, there were some 17,000 requirements in the DOORS database, ranging from barely legible half sentences, to in some cases, 1/2 an A4 page of rambling desires. The job to atomise the requirements into single deliverable and testable statements, didn't happen till year 5 of a 3 year project!

        2) Typical client / consultancy relationship: Gov't insistence that the requirements were fully specified and were fixed; and the consultancy, having cut the quote to the bone to get the gig, was issuing a change request and bill for every perceivable variation. Change Control was the slickest team in the whole project.

        3) Despite claiming to follow an iterative development process, it was big bang in the extreme, attempting in 1 go, consolidate the sometimes wildly different way 46 different FRS's do business. Did you know for example, there were 52 different states an appliance could be in?!?

        4) Changing the IT but not the processes. Because each FRS insisted that they have their own statuses and processes, and that no rationalisation was to occur. So the software had to support how they did business currently, they weren't going to change their processes.

        I could go on, as you know, it's always the same story. Here's what they should have done:

        A) Build 1 South West Regional call centre for Devon say (but could have started anywhere).

        B) Develop new software to support Devon's current model, though with the end size and scaleability in mind.

        C) Merge Cornwall to this new SW Regional centre, converging best practice from both FRS's, working out all the data and process mappings necessary, retraining staff and rolling out the new kit as required.

        D) Sort out all the teething problems and bugs.

        E) Commence a rolling programme of merging with neighbouring FRS's over many years, taking time to fully integrate and learn lessons before approaching the next, and the next.

        F) Bring online new regional call centres as required, integrating with the current network.

    2. Alister Silver badge

      Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

      But the bleating FBU were dead set against the utterly sensible and rational project

      Centralised regional control centres for emergency services are neither sensible or rational. They lead to dispatch errors due to mis-identification of locations or lack of local knowledge.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

        The article refers to one combined centre as covering for Cheshire, Cumbria, Lancashire and Greater Manchester, and a second which will cover Hertfordshire, Humberside, Norfolk and Lincolnshire. "Lack of local knowledge" is going to be a thing anyway, and seems to be acceptable for these.

    3. andy 103
      Mushroom

      Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

      "So they should be careful what they wish for."

      The thing that pisses me off with comments like this is you're talking about people who do an incredibly dangerous job to help the general public. Then they're met with these attitudes that they're all a bunch of bastards who only care about their jobs. Erm, you can get paid a lot more in other sectors than being an emergency worker.

      It might just be the case that people who work on the frontline have a really good knowledge of how things currently work and that messing around with it could lead to serious problems.

      Your entire argument is the usual simplification of an I.T. / tech problem, which makes perfect sense only when you look at it in a hypothetical way. Or try to come up with "improvements" which - when used in the real world - don't even come close to translating.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

        So you think it's a good idea that in this vaunted country we have 46 different Fire and Rescue Services? So we have 46 CEO's, 46 budgets, 46 H&S standards, 46 sets of processes, 46 training regimes, 46 software suites, 46 hardware packages, 46 upgrade cycles, 46 call centres, 46 backup call centres, 46 procurement depts and 46 HR depts?

        I never said anything bad about the firefighters that keep us safe at night. I know several personally, they're honest, decent, hardworking heroes.

        The FBU's ideological mantra that not a single member can lose their job however, that I take issue with, especially if there are 200+ call handlers in the country (say) all doing the same job, when only 100 (say) are needed, freeing up valuable budget to invest in the actual men and women that will break your burning door down to rescue you.

        Saying that the fire brigade as a whole can be run more efficiently, so less money is spent on admin and more on front line staff, is not even close to saying all firefighters are bastards. So feel free to climb down off your high horse.

        1. andy 103

          Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

          "so less money is spent on admin and more on front line staff"

          Wow, you've really just proven my point about over simplification of a problem there. The real world doesn't work like this!!

          If, for instance, the NHS managed to make a significant cost saving somewhere, we all know that doesn't directly translate into getting more frontline nurses.

          Just because a highly paid set of CEO's lose their jobs does not in any way mean you're going to get more firefighters! Not even sure if you'd factored in the cost of undertaking the project you describe anyway, but either way, it still wouldn't happen.

        2. katrinab Silver badge
          Flame

          Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

          Yes I do.

          A fire fighter will have to do very different things in Central London vs the Scottish Highlands, and the systems need to be different to reflect that. A one-size-fits-all approach would end up being a one-size-fits-nobody.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

            Exactly the point I was going to make from my own experience having been involved in the merger of 8 Scottish regional fire services in to one national body.

            The merger date was written in to law with no thought to how long contracts still had to run on existing IT kit, never mind on the control rooms, radios and mobilisation kit, and the requirements of the different services and their vastly different geographies led to all sorts of issues, and that's before you factor in that both SFRS and Police Scotland lost their VAT exemptions when they became national bodies. Politics also played a huge part internally, with resentment from the smaller services towards the larger ones who they saw as taking them over.

            Anon for obvious reasons.

        3. EnviableOne Silver badge

          Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

          you think 46 is bad

          there are 241 NHS trusts

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

            The Ambo's have a national radio project and an effectively national approach to mobilizing equipment and systems, not to mention huge regional ambulance services - just what the FiReControl project was supposed to deliver.

            I would be very happy if the small fire service I work for became part of a regional system with the associated support and economies of scale.

            We deployed Tomtoms to the trucks and in the past two years the crews seem to have forgotten their local knowledge and blame the tech when sent on a route they know is wrong.

            If you give anything to a firefighter they will break it

      2. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge
        Mushroom

        Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

        Having worked offshore & had to don full BA kit & go into real fire situations\simulations in training where even one mistake can be very nasty*. I don't begrudge actual firefighters a penny.

        Icon - That fireball inches from your face, flames drawn to the area of low pressure at the center of the hose nozzle, then flying up following the contour of the inverted umbrella as you advance on it with two hoses & a volunteer on the floor waiting for the flame to be pushed back enough to access the cut off valve.

        *Do you think its a good idea to remove your face mask because you have an itch, when temperatures are soaring, with very very real (Controlled) flames & the room filled with black smoke reducing your visibility to virtually nothing, while having to follow your route by touch. Put that in mind, think on every movie fire scene you have seen & really think again.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

      Emergency Services should always be under local control - only an idiot would think that centralising the entire system is a good idea. Each "super-region" would have a single point of failure, long command-and-control links, lack of local knowledge and be RUN BY EADS?? And you seriously think that was a good idea?

      I would far rather pay ten fire stations, ten hospitals and ten ambulance stations to spend their time on their arses than let some moron centralise it and then run and hide when the shit hits the fan and their three remaining fire stations and one remaining combined hospital and ambulance station cannot cope because they don't have enough people and equipment (the M25 is one of the busiest roads/motorways in the UK and how many emergency hospitals are within an *estimated* 25-minute drive now? ONE. And that doesn't allow for the fact that the road will almost certainly be blocked by whatever incident requires action from the emergency services in the first place, or the accident happening anywhere outside Surrey).

      I certainly have no love for the unions but something I hate even more is the sort of arsehole who says "the emergency services don't need to have spare capacity sat around, cut everything to the bare minimum and blame them when anything else goes wrong and they cannot cope."

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

        Who said anything about cutting fire stations, appliances or front line staff? That wasn't the point of the project at all.

        By cutting out the 46 levels of duplication, the whole fire brigade could be more efficient, utilising their current budget better to divert MORE money to front line services, not less. Or do you think paying for 46 CEO's salaries is a good way to spend the fire fighters' budget? You're fighting the wrong fight here mate.

        1. Alister Silver badge

          Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

          By cutting out the 46 levels of duplication

          IT IS NOT DUPLICATION!

          It is necessary replication. Economic efficiencies do not necessarily lead to better service. This has been proven time and again with the NHS.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

            Currently having this argument with my boss in a well known GovCo

            Efficiency is defined internally as cost efficiency with a success measured in £. Coming from a Lean production/mfg background I tried to point out that was a fallacy, as sometimes increasing efficiency is actually a cost increase, as long as you deliver proportionally more output...

            So many glazed expressions and eyes rolling back...

          2. pop_corn

            Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

            Can you explain how 46 CEO's is necessary replication? Or 46 HR mangers? How about 46 procurement managers? What about 46 differently specified IT suites, complete with 46 admins to manage and upgrade them?

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

      Oh, it's the unions fault! Presumably you're a fireman and that's why you're AC?

      Or are you just another of the anonymous trolls sent here to encourage us to get behind our racist government and blame the plebs?

      Sooner or later the blame has to fall on the actual people in charge.

      1. TRT Silver badge

        Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

        I think they might have started a flamewar.

    6. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

      They built the buildings, there is one near where I live not sure how many got built. Just seems funny this building sitting there empty all that time. Completed fitted out. Heard the IT contract there still replaced the PC's when they were supposed too, even though no-one had used them.

      Not sure when the problems started but how does a project build buildings when it is not sure it will go ahead? Or might not go ahead?

      1. Evil_Goblin

        Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

        Because they aim to build enough inertia so that no-one can contemplate cancelling it...

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Maybe the FBU shouldn't have sabotaged FiReControl then

        All 9 bespoke design buildings were built, complete with years of security to guard them.

  4. davenewman
    Headmaster

    Denied not refuted

    To refute something, you need to provide evidence.

    Otherwise it is just a denial.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Are capita programmers all MBAs?

    I find it difficult to understand this level of incompetence. Could someone explain?

    1. Aladdin Sane

      Re: Are capita programmers all MBAs?

      Their salespeople promise an amazing product that is impossible to deliver with the actual budget and their developers get screwed.

  6. MrKrotos

    "Capita software"

    and there is your problem

    1. teebie

      Re: "Capita software"

      They aren't very good with computers.

      1. EnviableOne Silver badge

        Re: "Capita software"

        nah thats their other subsidury "Capita Hardware"

  7. Korev Silver badge
    Flame

    Darryl Keen, chief fire officer at Hertfordshire Fire Services, said: “The system includes a collaboration arrangement with three other Services in Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Humberside which means that calls for any of the services can be effectively handled in all four Services during exceptionally busy periods such as storms – this effectively provides four times the capacity for Hertfordshire than in our previous arrangements.”

    It'd only be four times the capacity if the other fire brigades' callcentres have zero calls...

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    If this is causing problems with 999, I wonder if it also spills over to the 0118 999 881 999 119 725 3 lines.

    1. katrinab Silver badge
      Coat

      That's the Royal Berkshire Fire & Rescue Service ...

      well 0118 is the Reading area code, so I suppose it must be?

    2. EnviableOne Silver badge

      or you could send them an e-mail .... Moss

  9. wolfetone Silver badge

    This was highlighted during the Grenfell inquiry, and instead they jumped on the fact the firefighters let people down.

  10. Mike Lewis

    Stress testing

    They've heard of it...

  11. Tom Paine

    due to a migration to a new Microsoft Outlook server

    I know it's had a history of security bugs, but...

  12. Tom Paine

    And also

    The ECC is made up of four county fire services: Hertfordshire was the first to join in November 2017; Humberside joined in November 2019; Norfolk joined in the last couple of weeks; and Lincolnshire is due to go live today.

    I can see how it makes sense for four geographically distributed local authorities to reduce the risk of SPoF and local emergencies overwhelming the resources that, say, Lincolnshire alone can provide. Not hard to conceive of circs that lead to lots of calls hitting all four control rooms simultaneously, though: apart from coincidence (which will always get you in the end), record book storms like Dennis can obviously affect places across the whole country. So why isn't this a national system? I know -- legs blame the EU!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: And also

      North Yorkshire FRS have a control partnership with........ Cornwall FRS

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