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999 IT failures "endangering lives"

19 February 2020

IT issues in North West and East Coast emergency fire control rooms are creating dangerous delays in emergency response, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has warned.

The union has issued five Safety Critical Notices to those fire controls demanding the problems are urgently addressed, as control rooms handle a huge influx of storm-related calls.

An instance of IT failure in NW fire control caused a delay of eight minutes, seriously impacting the ability of understaffed control rooms to mobilise firefighters, fire engines, and other emergency resources to incidents.

The safety critical notices raise issues including:

  • Failures in the mobilising system to document and record addresses, requiring staff to log off and on again before mobilising resources
  • The mobilising system slows down to “unusable” levels during incidents on motorways
  • Attempts to issue resource proposals are met with frozen white-out screens
  • Risk-critical information is not properly communicated to control staff, such as whether the occupier is a hoarder, whether there has been a firearms risk, whether there is a risk of violence to crews
  • Failure to send critical emails including arson threat referrals and accident/injury report forms, due to a migration to a new Microsoft Outlook server

Lynda Rowan-O’Neil, FBU Control Staff national committee, said: “We’ve repeatedly warned that these IT failings are dangerous, but have been ignored. Our control rooms are desperately understaffed and conditions have become completely untenable.

“The control room mergers involved massive cuts to staff numbers, which have seriously undermined our ability to handle the overwhelming volume of storm-related calls.

“We cannot keep allowing outdated, malfunctioning IT systems to delay emergency response. It’s no secret that, in an emergency, a matter of seconds could be the difference between life and death. These failings could genuinely endanger lives.”

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said: “We are deeply concerned about the litany of failings in fire control. Without efficient, well-staffed control rooms, it’s impossible to quickly mobilise resources to a fire, or understand the risks when firefighters arrive.

“This is coinciding with one of the worst storm seasons we’ve had in years – it isn’t safe for firefighters or the public.

“It’s an utter disgrace that emergency fire control bosses have ignored the concerns of their own staff for so long. The FBU is fully behind our members taking on these safety-critical issues and will be applying pressure nationally and regionally.”

The affected control rooms cover some of the areas worst hit by Storm Ciara. The East Coast & Hertfordshire Control Room Consortium (ECHCRC) covers Humberside, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Hertfordshire.

North West Fire Control’s 5,000 square mile remit covers a population of 5.5 million people, handling emergency calls for Cheshire, Cumbria, Lancashire and Greater Manchester fire services. It includes Manchester International airport and Sellafield nuclear facility.