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Life after FiReControl: north-west fire authorities team up

Sade Laja Published 26 September 2011

Life after FiReControl: north-west fire authorities team up

Ian Cartwright of Cumbria fire and rescue service tells Sade Laja why it has become the latest authority to join the north-west collaboration on a single control room for the region

The demise of the government's FiReControl project may have been a story of horrific project management, but it has provided some benefits according to Ian Cartwright. The deputy chief fire officer at Cumbria fire and rescue service says it has allowed individual fire and rescue authorities "to shape something that is fit for purpose for the organisation that wants to use it"..

"I think the review by the public accounts committee and the National Audit Office said that the concept was sound, it's just the way the project had been managed, and therefore yes, having more local autonomy over how we define the future of fire controls is beneficial," he says.

Cumbria county council recently gave the green light for the county's fire and rescue service to join a collaboration between the five fire authorities in the north-west to transfer their control room functions to a single centre in Warrington. It joins Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Cheshire, which voted in favour of the project at an earlier date. The plans will go ahead subject to Merseyside's decision at the end of this month on joining the initiative. The collaboration will involve the transfer of fire 999 call handing and fire engine mobilisation currently carried out by the individual services to a local authority controlled company, NW Fire Control Ltd, to be based in Warrington. Council members will be directors of the company, with the move expected to begin in 2014.

Cartwright says the authorities started making plans for a single control room when FiReControl was cancelled in December 2010. The aim is to provide a control system with improved functionality for all the services involved. According to Cartwright, the difference between the fiercely criticised national initiative and the north-west collaboration is that the fire services now have full control over the direction the service takes.

"It produces better resilience for us and saves all of the authorities involved some money, and the reason for that is when we got together and established a business case to propose to central government, they agreed to fund it to the tune of £36.7m," he says, adding that the funding enables the north-west to establish a fire control function at limited cost to the services involved.

FiReControl was launced in 2004 and aimed at replacing the control rooms of 46 local services with a network of nine regional centres and a national computer system, and was described by the public accounts committee as one of the worst cases of project failure it had seen in many years. In July, the coalition government announced funding of £81m to help fire authorities to improve control service technology in the aftermath of the initiative.

Commenting on the possible future of FiReControl services, a spokesman for Communities and Local Government (CLG) said: "Ministers believe the most effective approach is to build on the experience and expertise of local fire and rescue services, which are best placed to manage the risks faced, rather than by central government imposing unwanted top down solutions."

Part of the north-west collaboration's agreement with CLG includes the government subsidising the running costs of the centre in Warrington, which was built as part FiReControl, until 2033. Cartwright adds: "So, of the £36.7m that they are prepared to give us to complete the project, a shade over £26m is for the subsidy of the building over the next 22 years."

The north-west fire authorities will also be able to "take some stuff out" of the south-west control centre built for FiReControl, amounting to around £1m worth of additional equipment. "As part of the deal, we are having access to some of the assets that were procured under the FiReControl project," explains Cartwright.

He believes that the model, and the legacy building at Warrington, provides the opportunity to set up a shared service for other fire authorities.

"There are also other business opportunities that might be afforded to us through that site, so there is a potential for income generation, but in essence it is about providing a better service to the communities in the north-west at this reduced cost," he says.

He also thinks that a number of innovative solutions by different fire authorities will emerge across England in the coming years, but acknowledges that their success will depend on funds from the savings generated from the government's recent £81m investment.

The medium term plan for the north-west partnership is to transfer the control room function to Cheshire fire and rescue service in 2012 pending the establishment of the north-west control room in Warrington. But Cartwright says the success of the collaboration will be measured by its longevity and effectiveness.

"What we would like to achieve is to ensure that what we set out in terms of our objectives are met and that we can demonstrate that the model has longevity, and also has the degree of resilience functionality that other fire and rescue services see as beneficial to them," he concludes.

Update: Since the publication of this article Merseyside fire and rescue
service has rejected plans to join the north-west collaboration on a single control room for the region. The remaining authorities still plan to go ahead with the initiative.

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