25 April 2002 | Robin Parker
UK emergency services' separate procurement strategies are hindering the information sharing needed after last September's terrorist attacks on the US, the government's spending watchdog has warned.
The National Audit Office (NAO) has criticised the fire service for pulling out of joint negotiations with the police for the £1.5 billion Airwave digital radio system. It said the project was a failed opportunity to provide the emergency services with radios on which they could communicate with each other.
In its report, Public Private Partnerships: Airwave, the NAO said the events of 11 September had made it all the more important that emergency services have the best communications and information-sharing capability to cope with possible repeat attacks on the UK.
The fire service withdrew because some advanced features were irrelevant to its needs, and is now purchasing regionally.
It also acted on Home Office legal advice about open competition. The Police Information Technology Organisation (Pito) had become locked with a single bidder, O2, the company spun off from BT last year, after two other consortia withdrew.
The ambulance service, which was not part of negotiations, will hold an open competition for a national radio system this summer. Its system should be in place by early next year.
Richard Diment, chief executive of the Ambulance Service Association, said a joint strategy was difficult because each service reported to a different government department and had individual needs.
"Fire and ambulance officers don't need to communicate over as large distances as the police, and, crucially, we have to have all calls recorded for audit purposes, which the police's system does not need to."
More than 50 forces have signed up to Airwave, the police's first national digital radio system for England, Scotland and Wales.
Pito saved £130 million by using the private finance initiative rather than through conventional procurement.
Richard Bull, president of the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers' Association, said the emergency services need guidance on how to prepare communications to tackle terrorism.
"We need direction from the government on how these will be procured and funded, as they will not come cheaply."
Fire, ambulance and police associations are reporting to government ministers this week to determine the viability of funding and purchasing a single national radio network.
Two of the 10 regional fire service buying consortia are close to awarding tenders to upgrade their radio systems, but have delayed a decision until the end of the month in case the government suggests an alternative direction.