The future of a controversial £400m project to create a network of regional 999 fire-control centres was in jeopardy last night after the Government refused to put any more public money into the scheme.
Dogged by delays, cost overruns and technical failures, the project, inherited from Labour, has left nine new buildings standing empty. They may not become fully operational until 2013, four years after the original deadline – and every hour overdue is costing the taxpayer £1,500.
Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities, criticised the IT consultant EADS for its part in the "mess". He claimed the technical support system to run the centres had overheated in tests, creating a potential fire hazard. The company has denied the allegation.
It has also emerged that a satnav system designed to get fire crews to incidents fails to recognise problems particular to fire engines. "This is a practical problem. Where there are low bridges we do not want them to go through and find they are missing their ladders," Mr Pickles said.
The mapping programme also currently only recognises a select number of UK locations.
Mr Pickles accused EADS of not taking the matter seriously, adding: "We have no intention of rolling over and having our tummy tickled on this. We expect them to deliver their contract."
Earlier this year a parliamentary select committee slated the FiReControl project, calling it the culmination of "poor judgement and mismanagement". The aim was to replace 46 existing emergency control centres with nine "super-hubs", with new technology used to prioritise calls and make better use of equipment.
MPs said the new centres were often too large and in some cases needlessly expensive – one, in London, had been equipped with a £25,000 coffee machine. They found the project was so badly run there had been a complete breakdown in communication between civil servants and EADS.
Civil servants were sent to the Newport headquarters of EADS in an attempt to salvage the scheme, but sources claim they have been ostracised and forced to set up separate offices in a temporary building in the company car park.
Meanwhile, EADS insists it has simply fulfilled Whitehall's specification and remains "on track to provide the final system".
The scheme has been criticised by MPs and unions who fear safety will be jeopardised and millions of pounds squandered. FiReControl is now being reviewed to ensure value for money for the taxpayer. "We are not going to bail out this contract," said Bob Neill, the fire service minister.
The Fire Brigades Union said money was being "thrown down the drain" and the project was "dead".
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