O2 hot tip for fire services deal

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The Independent Online

Telecoms group O2 is the favourite to land a contract worth an estimated £200m to provide a secure communications network for the fire service.

The group is expected to beat off competition from the other short-listed bidder, the defence group EADS, when the "firelink" contract is awarded early next month.

O2 is bidding through its Airwave subsidiary, which earlier this year completed the roll-out of its national secure communications network for public safety organisations.

A secure network would not crash, unlike a network using shared frequencies, which get overloaded in emergencies, such as during the London bombings of 7 July. It is also harder to hack into.

Using Airwave, firefighters would be able to talk to any other station or colleague, regardless of location.

Airwave, which has sunk £800m into the network, has already won a £2.9bn contract to provide more than 100,000 police officers with a similar service. In July, it won a £390m contract for the England ambulance service.

It is easier for different emergency services to communicate if they use the same technology. Staff from different emergency services at the scene of an incident could, for example, "patch themselves in" to the same network. The awarding of the contract, which could come as early as this week, will bring to an end a seven-year procurement process.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which is handling it, will also outline details this month of a separate 15-year contract worth £1bn to overhaul the fire service's control rooms. The service currently has 46 local control centres but the Government wants to replace these with nine regional centres.

In May, O2, formerly the mobile arm of BT, recorded its first profit from Airwave when it turned an operating loss of £30m for the year to the end of March into a £19m profit.