'Poor judgement' puts Olympics fire safety at risk

Damning report says crucial 999 command centres may not be ready in time for the 2012 Games
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The Independent Online

Fire safety at the 2012 Olympic Games is in jeopardy as plans to revamp the emergency services lie in disarray, a report warns.

Blunders in a multimillion-pound project to modernise the fire services' 999 control centres mean safety during the Games could be compromised, MPs have said.

The controversial £202m FiReControl project, designed to improve the Fire and Rescue Service and meant to be in operation by 2009, has been delayed, is massively over budget and might not improve safety, says the report. In a damning assessment, MPs from the Communities and Local Government Select Committee describe the project as a catalogue of "poor judgement and mismanagement".

The delays mean that crucial command centres may not "go live" until after the Games have finished.

The Fire Brigade Union has called for the project to be scrapped and said that guarantees cannot be given over safety. The union's general secretary, Matt Wrack, said: "No credible guarantee can be offered about whether the safety and security of the Olympic Games will be compromised. If the new regional control centres are not fully operational, it will be compromised; and ministers promising otherwise are making pledges which they do not know they can keep."

FiReControl was originally designed to reduce the current 46 local 999 control centres to nine regional, super command centres, so that fire services can be better mobilised by using the most up-to-date equipment.

It is expected that the project will cost a further £38m before its hoped-for start next year. The MPs say viable alternatives will be needed if the project slips further behind.

They also found that the new centres – several of which are lying empty – are too large and in some cases needlessly expensive. One in London has been equipped with a £25,000 coffee machine.

The project has been so badly run that there has been a complete breakdown in communication between civil servants running the project and its IT consultants, EADS.

MPs criticised the fact that there had been a failure to consult the fire services on what they really need, resulting in "a deep hostility" and fears that it will lead to a "less efficient and less safe service".

The government team running the project is said to have "little historical knowledge of the fire service" and has suffered from a high staff turnover and an over-reliance on "transient civil servants and consultants".

MPs claimed that they were denied access to independent reviews of the management of the project by officials.

They said the project should continue but it needs greater collaboration with fire services and better management.

The committee's chairwoman, the Labour MP Phyllis Starkey, said: "The original aims and expected benefits of this scheme were, in our view, sound. But the department has clearly not learned from its previous mistakes. FiReControl is yet another catalogue of further poor judgement and mismanagement."

Shahid Malik, Fire minister, said: "The Government agrees with the select committee that the FiReControl project should continue with renewed vigour. This is a part of the Government's unprecedented and successful investment in the Fire and Rescue Service that means that firefighters are better equipped than ever before and able to respond effectively to incidents, whether caused by nature, industrial accident or terrorist activity."

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