Pawing through the ashes of smouldering control

Volvo B11 Fire Engine 1938
1938 Volvo B11 Fire Engine

The headlines have said it all during the last week as politicians and the media tossed around the hot coals of the FiReControl bonfire… Reporting on the project to set up nine regional Fire & Rescue control centres for services in England, a committee of MP’s branded it a “complete failure” but that’s ok is it?

What about the reported £469m of taxpayers’ money flushed away down the toilet of political public sector incompetency, as an additional set of ‘lessons are learned’ – yet again?

According to the findings of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), the scheme had “not achieved any of its objectives.” Eight of the original nine centres were still sat empty and the Department for Communities and Local Government had “fatally undermined” the project by not working properly with local fire services. The cross-party PAC also highlighted the following catalogue of major issues and errors..

  • the project was rushed, without proper understanding of costs or risks
  • the Treasury funding lacked proper scrutiny of feasibility and costs
  • contracts were awarded to companies without the necessary skills or experience
  • the IT system was never delivered
  • there was “an extraordinary failure of leadership”
  • no-one had been made accountable
  • senior staff “have carried on as if nothing had gone wrong” while continuing to work on other government projects.

Here we see another clear example of politicians and Civil Service bureaucrats believing they know better than the practitioners. Sickening, disgusting or criminal, call it what you will however, one thing it probably shouldn’t be, to anyone who has a reasonably good understanding of public sector working, is surprising.

For decades most major projects in the sector have been blighted in some way by politics, along with a good measure of inter-departmental and organisational parochialism. The Public Services Radio Communications Project (PSRCP) is another example. The project aimed to deliver the Airwave Communications Network, a public service radio system for interoperability between statutory and voluntary emergency agencies. Despite the technology being born in the early 1990’s, it didn’t actually start to roll out to the emergency services across the UK until 2005 however; it’s still one that isn’t short of some major issues.

With any major public sector project, there are always arguments about who should get the lion’s share of funds from the public purse and the required resources. Not to mention the issues born out of a good measure of inter-agency point scoring and/or senior management rivalry and self-importance. All factors that often preclude any advantages that could possibly be gleaned from advantages presented by economies of scale.

Proposals for the regionalisation of any public service delivery also brings with it massive employment hot potato considerations. That and genuine concerns around issues such as the ‘control’ and ‘ownership’ by local authorities and the service delivery to our communities. It’s also one of those sticking points which has impacted upon police regionalisation but in this case, one which the Fire Brigades Union were obviously quick to champion on behalf of their membership. 

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), said he welcomed the report, but added that the fallout from the project was still being felt… “It failed because ministers failed to listen to the voice of control staff and their professional representatives,” he said…(

The Ministerial Portfolio holder at the time of the project was Rt. Hon John Prescott MP. He was also quick in attempts to distance himself from the project failures on BBC Radio 4 (21-09-11).  Obviously the FBU were incensed when Prescott tried to shift blame to their members and said; Prescott should take the blame for FiReControl failure, not firefighters

“Only a minister who doesn’t know what’s going on blames others. Prescott has no excuse. He was told by the FBU, among others. He was clearly not doing his job properly…” (CMatt Wrack)

For what it’s worth my take on the original FiReControl idea is that it was probably a worthwhile and worthy venture; if for no other reason than to reduce the number of Fiefdoms that like the police, exist within the British Fire & Rescue Service. The original idea was also likely to have been totally workable but, it was always destined to fall foul of the localism arguments and employment issues.

Margaret Hodge, who chairs the PAC, may have said the project had been “flawed from the outset” and, it may have been “one of the worst wastes of public money for many years” however; at least she was honest enough in admitting that the issues occurred “on Labour’s watch and Labour has to take responsibility.” I have to agree with her when she said; it was also far too simplistic to suggest that, “getting rid of a bunch of politicians would provide all the answers,” it won’t.

I suppose I shouldn’t really be shocked at any of this after thirty years in the sector. After all North Yorkshire Police also failed to listen to their practitioners when closing one of their control rooms down recently, but I’ve covered that and it’s another story.

The final issue surrounding failure of major public sector projects is…If it all goes wrong at least you can blame the previous political leadership; ‘learn some more lessons’ and then get back to business as usual, just as soon as the media fuelled public opinion has cooled a little! When will we ever really learn?

One thought on “Pawing through the ashes of smouldering control

  1. Nice fire engine!!! Why are you so surprised Grumpy? Put that loss in with the demolition governments decision to lose countless billions by scrapping the Nimrod project (after the planes had been built) and I mean scrapping, as the planes were dismantled for salvage. The almost inevitable overrun both by time and cost of EVERY major MOD project in the last 10 years (Labour Government) and you wonder why the incompetant twats in procurment still have a job, whilst the troops in the war zone don’t even have the equipment to keep themselves safe. Oh and what about the millions Cameron spent a couple of months ago sending body armour and weapons to an African Nation. Slainte.


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