The FiReControl project was intended to improve the resilience, efficiency and technology of the Fire and Rescue Service by replacing its existing local control rooms with a network of nine purpose-built regional control centres. Central to the project was a national computer system to handle 999 calls, mobilise equipment and manage incidents.
The government announced FiReControl at the end of 2003 and selected European Air and Defence Systems (now Airbus DS Communications) as its main contractor. However, the project suffered from significant management challenges and cost overruns and was eventually cancelled in 2010, by which time it had wasted a minimum of £469 million, according to the National Audit Office.
The scale and nature of incidents that the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) has to deal with has increased over the years – particularly as a result of terrorism and climate change.
In the early 2000s, the Fire and Rescue Authorities (FRAs) in England operated 46 separate control rooms, which relied on a wide range of different technologies and operational procedures. There was a large gap between the most advanced and the least, with many of them approaching the end of their useful lives. The existing control rooms were standalone, making them unable to replace each other when systems failed or in times of high demand. In addition, it was considered that they could not deploy both specialist resilience equipment and core firefighting resources flexibly and efficiently across boundaries and over larger areas.
Taken together, the existing control centres did not meet operational requirements and were not built for purpose to respond to large-scale incidents such as natural disasters or terrorist attacks. Therefore, a strategy for replacing them was considered to be necessary.
The FiReControl project was part of the Labour government's Fire and Resilience Programme, which sought to achieve wider reform of the FRS. FiReControl aimed to improve the resilience, efficiency and technology of the FRS by replacing the 46 existing local control rooms with a network of 9 built-for-purpose regional control centres. It was to use a national computer system to handle calls, mobilise equipment, and manage incidents. The project was announced at the end of 2003 and obtained the legislative support through the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004. It began in that year, and was expected to be complete by October 2009.
The development of the project was contracted to European Air and Defence Systems (EADS), but did not run according to plan. “In 2007, the Department for Communities and Local Government (the Department) contracted EADS [now Airbus DS Communications] to design, develop and install the computer system underpinning the project. However, the project was subject to a number of delays and costs escalated over its lifetime.”
The project was cancelled in December 2010 after the Department concluded that it could not be delivered within an acceptable timeframe. “At the point the decision was made, the Department estimated it had spent £245 million on the project and calculated that completion would take the total cost of the project to £635 million, more than five times the original estimate of £120 million.”
The public impact
The project did not achieve its objectives of improving the operation of the FRS, but rather resulted in high costs that yielded few, if any, benefits:
- “The key aims of delivering a new IT system and introducing business change at the local level were undelivered.” The nine regional control centres were delivered, but they were still empty in 2011 when the National Audit Office (NAO) made the final review of the project. They were also costly to maintain, so the Department was left with the challenge of minimising the future cost of such buildings, which could be as high as £431 million over the remaining 24 years.
- In 2004, the Department had estimated that the project would deliver savings of £86 million, a 28 percent reduction in the cost of running the existing control rooms. A further revision to the Full Business Case, published in May 2009, estimated that the project would cost £218 million more than it would save.
- A survey conducted by the NAO in 2011 found that the cancellation of the project had a negative impact on the FRS' operations: “17 of the 27 FRS that responded to our survey told us that the cancellation of the project had a significant negative operational impact on their service, and 23 stated that it had a significant financial impact.”
What did and didn't work
Stakeholder Engagement Weak
From the outset there was poor collaboration between the main stakeholders – the Department for Communities and Local Government, EADS, and the users in the FRS – which led to poor contract design, miscommunication, and lack of trust between those in charge of taking the project forward. Other stakeholders included the Local Government Association.
Insufficient communication and engagement with the prospective users during the design of the project led to concerns about its rationale and purpose. “Fire and Rescue Authorities and their Services criticised the lack of clarity on how a regional approach would increase efficiency. The Local Government Association similarly asserted throughout the planning and delivery of FiReControl that a centrally-dictated, one size fits all model was not an appropriate way to optimise resilience."
Similarly, an NAO report reviewing the programme found that few of prospective users of the system's users were adequately involved in the design phase. “There was little engagement with the intended users of the regional control centres during the planning or design of the buildings, and the Communities and Local Government Select Committee concluded that neither the procurement process, nor the identification of their specification, was properly informed by end users… Our survey of FRS found that 22 out of 27 respondents were dissatisfied with the way in which the Department engaged with their service prior to the approval of the project."
Political Commitment Good
In a White Paper published by the government in June 2003, Our Fire and Rescue Service, the deputy prime minister John Prescott stressed the objective of reforming the fire service. “He wanted the service to be more proactive in preventing fires; to have more effective institutions; and to be more effectively led and managed so as to be better able to adapt to change, in order to save lives and reduce injuries."
The Department for Communities and Local Government was the main institution in charge of the project. “The Department for Communities and Local Government (the Department) centrally funded the development of the national IT system, covered the rental and maintenance payments for regional control centres until their transfer to FRS, and costs incurred by local FRS in preparation for their transition to these centres.”
Following the cancellation of the initiative, the Department held a consultation between January and April 2011 on the future of fire and rescue control services in England, to discuss how the objectives of the project could be met in other ways. It concluded that the preferred approach would be one of "increased collaboration, determined locally, with government support".
Public Confidence Weak
There is no information available on the opinion of the general public as there was relatively limited external awareness of the project.
However, there is evidence that the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) was neither supportive of the project nor confident in those implementing it. They opposed the whole reform project as well as the mergers to form regional control centres. The FBU's general secretary, Matt Wrack, said that: “The government accepts this plan could lead to cuts in frontline fire services and push up council tax. They also accept there is a high risk the project will be a complete failure because of the government's appalling track record in technology projects. A vast amount of money desperately needed for frontline services will be diverted to a technology project which won‘t save a single life. This is an enormous gamble with lives and public money. The union and large numbers of MPs are calling for an independent assessment of these plans before they are allowed to proceed any further. The government needs to listen to those who work in the fire service."
The FBU had been critical of the April 2000 report by Mott McDonald, The Future of the Fire Service Control Rooms and communications in England and Wales, which had been commissioned by the Home Office. "The FBU‘s response to the original Mott McDonald proposals, contained in a  report entitled Out of control, said that the concept that fewer control centres would be more resilient in case of a large disaster was 'flawed'. It also questioned [Mott McDonald's] assumptions about service delivery and value for money and recommended building on the existing structure, using joint procurement and improving liaison between fire authorities. The FBU was also sceptical about the government‘s ability to deliver an effective IT system."
Clear Objectives Fair
The project had several objectives, some of which were clear and measurable and others more general and subject to change.
FiReControl was part of the Department’s Fire and Resilience Programme, intended to strengthen the national and local resilience of the FRS. “The aim of this project was to improve efficiency by replacing local Fire and Rescue control rooms with nine purpose-built regional control centres, and resilience, using enhanced technology to enable a more effective handling of calls, mobilisation of equipment and management of incidents."
FiReControl had three main elements:
- “Accommodation – to deliver nine purpose-built buildings to house the regional control centres
- “Information Technology – to deliver the computer equipment and systems to handle calls, mobilise fire engines (or other equipment) and manage incidents on a national basis
- “Business change – to support FRS’ business change, including preparing each service for new operational processes and policies, staffing and ways of working.”
The regional control centres were expected to improve on the existing local arrangements “by providing purpose-built, secure and resilient facilities, networked across England so that each could back the other up in times of increased call pressure or failure, with each having access to the same information and the ability to manage and deploy resources on a local, regional or national level".
The FRS was the subject of numerous reports and reviews over time calling for significant reforms. The analysis from these reports was used to make the "optimal" decision for modifications to existing control rooms, although it is not clear that they took into account the other factors required to make the project successful.
The 1999 Mott McDonald report (see Public Confidence above) had concluded that an optimum arrangement for FRS control rooms would be 9 regional control rooms, but recommended only a reduction to 21 control rooms. “Although not ideal, it was felt that this was achievable within the then current constraints. The report was updated in 2003, and the compromise recommendation for 21 control rooms was dropped in favour of the original report‘s ‘optimal' 9."
Similarly, an HM Fire Service Inspectorate Report on The Best Value Reviews of Control and Communications also studied the situation and provided similar recommendations. “[It] examined 47 reviews submitted by fire brigades, and found little willingness by fire brigades to collaborate with each other. The report agreed with earlier reports' findings that considerable improvements in national resilience and efficiency could be achieved by creating a national network of 9 regional fire control centres (including London) in place of the existing 46 control rooms."
There were several key challenges to the project’s feasibility – in terms of financial, technical and time estimates – that were identified during its existence. “Ineffective checks and balances during initiation and early stages meant the Department committed itself to the project on the basis of broad-brush and inaccurate estimates of costs and benefits and an unrealistic delivery timetable and agreed to an inadequate contract with its IT supplier.”
The financial estimates initially identified for the project failed to include some of the additional costs that it would entail, and also underestimated the complexity of the task at hand. “Early assumptions made by the Department on the project costs were not robust and proved over-optimistic. In July 2004, the Department estimated that FiReControl would cost £120 million to deliver, but this figure underestimated the costs of the project. The Department did not, for example, include the costs of completing local and regional implementation work, or the costs of installing equipment in the regional control centres.”
As was often the case with government departments, they failed to grasp the complexity of the required software. “The level of development required for the IT system, however, was much greater than expected and, by February 2006, indicative pricing received from suppliers exceeded early forecasts of costs. By 2007, when the Department undertook a comprehensive assessment of the costs, the total cost of the project was estimated at £340 million, almost three times greater than the original figure.”
The timelines of the project also proved to be unrealistic, which presented an additional risk. “A Gateway Review by the Office of Government Commerce in April 2004 after the project had been approved found that the ‘extraordinarily fast pace’ of the project was introducing new risks to the delivery of the project, and escalating those already identified.” A subsequent review by the Office of Government Commerce and the Major Projects Review Group in July 2010 also concluded that the successful delivery of the project to the latest deadline appeared unachievable and that the Department should begin negotiations to end the contract with EADS "immediately".
The project had a complex management structure and suffered from high staff turnover, as well as a lack of in-house technical knowledge of the challenge at hand.
The Department was responsible for setting national strategic policy and direction for the FRS in England, as well as managing national programmes, which included FiReControl. “Responsibility for delivering FiReControl rested with a Senior Responsible Owner, supported by a project board comprising of stakeholders from the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Local Government Association, Chief Fire Officers’ Association, and the IT contractor.”
The delivery was split between a national team, a national IT system, and regional teams, which were responsible for the transition to a regional structure. Regional Management Boards were responsible for delivering national policies within each region and managing the changes needed at a local and regional level. These boards did not replace Fire and Rescue Authorities but were an intermediary tier between local Fire and Rescue Authorities and national government, which made the management more complex. “In 2008, the Office of Government Commerce described the governance structure as cumbersome and found that the project board was not operating as an effective decision-making forum. Work streams were operating independently and communicating autonomously with the regions, and the project lacked clear lines of decision-making, accountability or responsibility, and sufficient assurance and robust internal challenge.”
The Department also underestimated the complexity of designing the system, and failed to provide effective management in this respect. “The Department did not take sufficient ownership of the development of the IT system to achieve the required standardisation, delegating too much responsibility for ensuring the needs of services were met to the contractor. In 2009, an Office of Government Commerce review found that there was no single, authoritative owner of the user requirements and that bringing together 45 sets of rules across the FRS was inherently complex” 
Additionally, the project suffered from high turnover of staff and an over-reliance on poorly managed consultants. “During the life of the project there have been five different Senior Responsible Owners, four different Project Directors and five officers supervising the delivery of the technology. Only two senior managers worked on the project for its duration, one of whom, the project manager, was on contract from a consultancy. There was no framework to assess consultants’ performance until late 2008, despite the fact that consultants and temporary contract staff made up almost half the Department’s project team during this period.”
Reviews of the project’s execution revealed that there was little monitoring, either for ongoing milestones or for the performance of the contractors responsible for implementing the project. In their book, The Blunders of our Governments, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe cited a 2011 report to that effect: "The Public Accounts Committee, in its report on the fiasco, in addition to remarking that 'this is one of the worst cases of project failure that the Committee has seen in many years', noted that 'Despite the scale of failure and waste, no one in the Department has been held to account'."
The implementation of FiReControl was heavily reliant on consultants and interim staff, despite which there was no framework to assess their performance until the end of 2008. At that point, the NAO recommended that the Department’s contracts with consultants should include mechanisms to enable regular objective monitoring of performance, such as performance indicators and key milestones. “Without such mechanisms, the Department was unable to determine whether or not the services provided offered value for money.”
Ongoing tracking of milestones was not included in the contract, which meant that neither the Department nor EADS could hold each other to account. The contract contained key milestones, the majority of which were linked to deliverables provided towards the end of the contract. "The lack of interim milestones combined with ineffective project management and planning seriously undermined the Department’s ability to hold EADS to account or place it into breach of contract.” In turn, the poor contract design impeded the resolution of issues and the possibility of terminating the project at an earlier stage.
During most of the FiReControl project’s existence there was a lack of consultation and collaboration between EADS, the Fire and Rescue Authorities and the local authorities. The report from the NAO argued the project "was flawed from the start". “It had no support from local FRS when the Department for Communities and Local Government tried to impose the system without sufficient mandatory powers and without sufficient consultation with independent-minded local authorities.”
There was inadequate collaboration between the Department for Communities and Local Government and EADS, which prevented these parties from working effectively together. “The quality of early deliverables from EADS was criticised by the Department, but there was an absence of cooperation to resolve the issues. The emergence of a poor relationship was compounded by a lack of effective sharing or joint ownership of progress information, and by the Department’s ineffective governance and performance management of the contracted processes for elaborating the requirements and producing the detailed design for the main system... An independent technical review in early 2009 found some suspicion and distrust on both sides, with the Department suspecting that technical progress would not be delivered on time and EADS concerned about the project’s implementation and change management approach.”
The Department did not incentivise local Fire and Rescue Authorities to partner in FiReControl’s delivery. “Local Fire and Rescue Authorities were under no obligation to use the regional facilities. The Department did not devise, or communicate, a set of sufficient incentives to encourage them to support its delivery. None of those who responded to our survey were satisfied with the way in which the Department communicated operating arrangements for the regional control centres. Accountability for delivery was not placed in the hands of the Fire and Rescue Authorities that had the authority to commit the resources and accept operational responsibility.”
The Blunders of our Governments, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, 2013, Oneworld Publications