Joint 999 fire service call handling agreement could be terminated

West Sussex Fire and Rescue. Pic Steve Robards SR1817306 SUS-180108-084210001
West Sussex Fire and Rescue. Pic Steve Robards SR1817306 SUS-180108-084210001

A review of future options to deliver 999 call handling and fire engine mobilisation in West Sussex could lead to the termination of a joint agreement with East Sussex.

The Sussex Control Centre has been in operation since May 2014, when the mobilising staff from East and West Sussex moved into a new facility at Haywards Heath.

The centre ran the two legacy systems for East and West providing 999 call handling and fire engine mobilisation across Sussex.

However back in March, East Sussex Fire and Rescue moved to a new 999 control room system, which has led to a number of problems, with an investigation finding 158 issues up to June.

West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service was set to migrate on to the new system a few months later, but this may now no longer take place.

According to a West Sussex County Council decision issued last week: “The leader has approved plans for current and future service arrangements for emergency call response across the county and given authority for officers to prepare options for future consideration.”

No further information is publicly available as the rest is secret and only made available to councillors.

However when the decision was first published it made reference to giving officers the authority to terminate the agreement if necessary.

A county council spokesman said: “We have decided to review our plans to move over to a new system for handling emergency calls to West Sussex Fire and Rescue.

“The decision taken last week is simply to allow us to put our partners East Sussex Fire and Rescue Authority on notice of our wish to review the plans as they currently provide for a joint arrangement with them.

“Subject to ‘call-in’ on this decision, we will now take a fresh look at options in order to deliver the most efficient and cost effective mobilising system to serve the people of West Sussex. The decision follows an assessment of the proposals for the joint service at the Sussex Control Centre in Haywards Heath.

“Whilst our review is underway the service currently in place at Haywards Heath will continue to operate.

“We have had a really good working relationship with East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service and look forward to that continuing.”

The spokesman confirmed a summary of a confidential report had been briefly published in error but did not itself contain any sensitive commercial information.

Meanwhile members of the East Sussex Fire Authority will be meeting to discuss the decision and its implications.

A spokesman for East Sussex Fire and Rescue said: “We can reassure the public that our operations will not be affected. We will continue to answer 999 calls and respond to emergencies as normal.”

In June East Sussex Fire Authority members heard an investigation had found 158 issues with the new Remsdaq 4i mobilising system.

Some of the problems were down to poor wi-fi at fire stations, others were teething problems with the new system, weaknesses in existing systems or could not be blamed on technology.

According to the East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service the system has been used to manage more than 4,500 calls and incidents.

A spokesman added: “The introduction of any new system is carefully monitored and a small number of problems are to be expected.

“We therefore ensure there are back-up processes in place.

“We have resolved a number of reported defects with station-end equipment, the great majority of these issues were not the 4i system directly and affected a small proportion of the total number of mobilisations.

“These issues have been addressed as soon as they came to light and fixes have been put in place.

“Our staff have continued to gain experience with the new system, and have become highly proficient in using it.

“This has further reduced the number of reported errors.

“A joint investigation with the Fire Brigades Union is ongoing and a safety notice from the union was withdrawn several weeks ago.”

James Walsh, leader of the Lib Dem group at County Hall, said: “The new fire and rescue proposals do nothing to re-assure communities about fast response times to fires, where time costs lives.

“We already have severe undermanning at too many stations, with at times only half the fire engines able to turn out rapidly.

“Shelving the agreement with East Sussex will make fast co-operative mutual aid across county boundaries more difficult and slower.”

Back in July 2017, Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne decided to drop plans to take over fire and rescue services in the county.

West Sussex County Council argued its fire service was heavily integrated into other services it provided.

However Mrs Bourne said she would review the decision two years’ later if the necessary collaboration between the two fire services set out in the review had not taken place.

Dr Walsh warned that any decision to terminate the agreement for a joint control centre would weaken the county council’s response to another potential takeover bid by Mrs Bourne.

He argued this would be bad for the fire service, given the PCC’s record of reducing police numbers, adding: “The public pay for the fire and rescue and have the right to expect a better service, not continuous cost cutting and worsening response times.”