The Government is seeking to upgrade the radio system used by the police, fire and ambulance services with a system that is not yet in use nationwide anywhere in the world, and therefore carries significant implementation risk, according to the National Audit Office.

The communication systems used by our emergency services can literally make the difference between life and death for members of the public and the services themselves. The current communication service, Airwave, has served the emergency services effectively, and has averaged 99.9% availability since April 2010. It is, however an expensive system, costing £1,300 per handheld or vehicle-mounted device per year, and its data capabilities are poor. In addition, a deteriorating commercial relationship with Airwave after 2010 meant that the government did not believe an extension or re-procurement would offer value for money. The Government has been looking at options to replace Airwave when the contracts expire, and has set up the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme to carry out this work. The Government’s chosen option to replace Airwave is known as the Emergency Services Network (ESN).

ESN is inherently high risk. It is expected to save money by using parts of an existing commercial 4G network, that of EE. International comparison work, commissioned by the NAO, has concluded that the proposed ESN solution is the most advanced in the world, with only one other country – South Korea – seeking to deploy a similar solution. There are significant technical challenges that the programme needs to overcome including working with EE to increase the coverage and resilience of its 4G network so that it at least matches Airwave and developing handheld and vehicle mounted devices as no devices currently exist that would work on ESN.

According to the NAO, ESN is the right direction strategically and the benefits of ESN should be substantial but the business case is overly optimistic in its valuation of these. The programme’s planned approach to delivery should maximise these benefits, if successful, but has also maximised the risk. The programme expects to spend £1.2 billion setting up ESN by March 2020 before it starts to realise benefits. After this time, ESN will cost an estimated £500 less than Airwave per device per year and will have better data capabilities, allowing the emergency services to operate more effectively.

The ESN programme has an energetic, delivery-focused culture that has helped it retain staff and manage issues as they have emerged. Nevertheless, the programme is at least five months behind the schedule agreed a year ago and has responded by squeezing the time available rather than extending the overall timeframe. Its management of its key risks needs to improve if it is to deliver ESN successfully, including: the programme’s approach to technical assurance and testing; user engagement and more clarity on the contingency arrangements for extending Airwave. The programme’s eventual success, however, depends on the emergency services and other users choosing to transition to and make full use of ESN. The programme is not intending to force the emergency services to transition to ESN but has instead assured them that they can stay on Airwave until ESN is “at least as good as Airwave”. According to the NAO, defining this is complex and leaves room for disagreement.

“The need to save money and get out of a difficult commercial relationship has led the government to try and move to an approach that is not yet used nationwide anywhere in the world. The programme remains inherently high risk and while steps have been taken to manage these risks we are concerned that these are under-rated in the Home Office and elsewhere. The programme needs to put in place more independent testing and assurance regimes for its technical solution and urgently improve its approach to engaging with the emergency services.”

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office

Read the full report

Upgrading emergency service communications: the Emergency Services Network

Notes for editors

70% percentage of Great Britain’s landmass, as measured for Emergency Services Network (ESN) purposes, covered by EE’s 4G network in July 2016. This needs to be increased to 97% to match Airwave’s coverage. £3.6bn estimated value of the quantified benefits over 17 years resulting from switching to the Emergency Services Network (ESN). £1.2bn estimated cost of ESN, April 2015 to March 2020. After March 2020 ESN is expected to save money compared to Airwave. 412 Number of public organisations using Airwave in 2016 –  there are an estimated 328,000 Airwave devices within these organisations 99.9% Average availability of the Airwave network between 2010 and 2016 £500 Estimated annual saving per device (handheld or vehicle mounted) used by the emergency services once the transition to ESN is complete. 5 months The minimum length of time the programme is currently behind schedule compared to the full business case. The programme considers this will be recovered before the ESN goes fully operational. £475 million Estimated cost to the taxpayer of a 12-month nationwide delay in the time taken to transition to ESN. 1. The NAO commissioned international comparator work from Kable, a specialist ICT research company which is available at Kable: First Responder Solutions in the UK and Internationally August 2016. 2. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website. 3. The National Audit Office scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Sir Amyas Morse KCB, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO, which employs some 785 people. The C&AG certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether departments and the bodies they fund have used their resources efficiently, effectively, and with economy. Our studies evaluate the value for money of public spending, nationally and locally. Our recommendations and reports on good practice help government improve public services, and our work led to audited savings of £1.21 billion in 2015.

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