Emergency Services Network likely to be late

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The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has said the target date to replace the radio system used by the UK’s emergency services is unlikely to be met.

The UK’s 105 police, fire and ambulance services currently use the Airwave network, but this contract expires in December 2019. An upgrade – the Emergency Services Network, ESN – is planned, but a recent report by the National Audit Office concluded that ESN is ‘inherently high risk’ and that such an approach has not been used nationwide anywhere.

The PAC report notes ‘The ESN system is intended to save money by avoiding the capital costs of building a dedicated network by running on EE’s existing commercial 4G mobile data network. But only one other country in the world, South Korea, has attempted to do this and its approach is less risky than that proposed here as dedicated mobile spectrum is available to the emergency services’. The report also notes ‘new technology to prioritise the emergency services over commercial users needs to be developed’.

While ESN is expected to provide higher speed communications and more flexibility, issues have been identified – coverage in particular. While the Airwave network covers 97% of Great Britain and has offered 99.9% availability since April 2010, ESN will use EE’s commercial network, where coverage is currently only 70%.

Meg Hillier, PAC chair, said: “We are disappointed that detailed contingency plans have not been budgeted for or drawn up in the event that, as now seems likely, implementation over-runs.”

According to the PAC report, emergency services ‘will not use ESN’ until they are convinced that it works. This, it adds, may require more testing and assurance work, taking the delivery date beyond December 2019.