FireControl, the project to centralise control centres for the fire brigade, has been branded “one of the worst cases of project failure” in years.

Commenting in the release of the House of Commons  Public Accounts Committee’s (PAC) report into the project, Margaret Hodge, chair of the PAC, said: “The department’s [Department for Communities and Local Government, or DCLG] ambitious vision of abolishing 46 local fire and rescue control rooms around the country and replacing them with nine state of the art regional control centres ended in complete failure.

“The taxpayer has lost nearly half a billion pounds and eight of the completed regional control centres remain as empty and costly white elephants.

“No one has been held to account for this project failure, one of the worst we have seen for many years, and the careers of most of the senior staff responsible have carried on as if nothing had gone wrong at all and the consultants and contractor continue to work on many other government projects.”

The FireControl project started in 2004, but a poor understanding of the complexities of the IT system meant that the government focused on building the control centre first, and did not award a £200 million contract to EADS Defence and Security Systems to supply the IT infrastructure for the control centres until 2007. The system was intended to network the control centres and enable them to automatically back each other up during major incidents, or if one centre failed.

However, the project was abandoned in December 2010, after a series of delays, with none of the original objectives achieved and at least £469 million wasted.

London Fire Brigade ICT chief helps keep the capital safe

Hodge noted that the IT contract was awarded to a company that relied mainly on subcontractors and had no direct experience of supplying emergency services. Furthermore, she concluded that the IT contract was poorly designed, lacking early milestones that would have enabled DCLG to monitor the contractor’s progress, with payments scheduled too late so that tension was added to an already poor relationship. As a result, the required computer system was “simply never delivered”.

“The department mistakenly assumed that the delivery of the IT system would be straightforward and could be developed through a standardised off-the-shelf product.

“In fact, the technology was very complex, requiring 46 local fire services to standardise the way they operated. The failure to deliver the technology in an acceptable timeframe was the reason for the project’s termination,” the PAC said in its report.  

The PAC said that the project was doomed to fail from the start. It said the DCLG failed to both recognise that the project’s success relied on the co-operation of locally-accountable and independent fire and rescue services, and to try to gain local buy-in before embarking on the project. Instead, it excluded local fire services from major decisions about the new IT solution.

“The project was rushed, without proper understanding of costs or risks. The leadership relied far too much on external consultants [costing £69 million by 2010] and the frequent departures of senior staff also contributed to weak management and oversight of the project,” Hodge said.

Although the DCLG now plans to spend a further £84.8 million in an effort to try and achieve the original objectives of the project, the PAC said that it was not clear how the extra funding would do so, or deliver value for money.

The National Audit Office also branded the government’s abandoned FiReControl project a “comprehensive failure”, earlier this year.