East Sussex emergency fire calls could be answered in Surrey

East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service crews attending an emergency
East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service crews attending an emergency

East Sussex Fire Authority is to hold an extraordinary meeting this week to discuss multi-million pound plans to outsource its control room to Surrey.

On Friday (October 25), ESFA members are set to decide on whether to pursue plans to outsource its emergency control room and mobilising system to Surrey Fire and Rescue Service.

According to meeting papers the proposal would be expected cost the fire authority more than £11m, but would lead to “immediate operational benefits” as a result of the sharing of resources between fire services. 

In a report to be considered by the fire authority at the meeting, East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service’s (ESFRS) Deputy Chief Fire Officer Mark O’Brien said: “Sharing a control or mobilising systems makes sharing resources easier, as all information flows through the control room which sits at the heart of the organisation.

“Any time or cost risks associated with the preferred option need to be considered alongside the operational, industrial relations and people impacts of the alternative options. 

“When the clear operational effectiveness differences are then laid on top, it is the view of officers that there are significantly greater operational advantages and future opportunity with Surrey Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) than the other options under consideration.”

East and West Sussex have operated a joint control centre at Haywards Heath, but there were significant delays in migrating the two fire and rescue services on to one mobilisation and communications system – known as the Remsdaq 4i solution.

While the system eventually went live in East Sussex (and only East Sussex) last March, its rollout encountered a number of initial problems.

ESFRS was then informed West Sussex County Council (WSCC) had called for a full due diligence exercise to be conducted “on the IT integrity and operational efficacy” of the system.

In his report, DCFO O’Brien said: “The authority was subsequently notified at the beginning of August 2018, that WSFRS would not be transitioning to the Remsdaq 4i solution and, furthermore, that WSCC wished to serve notice to terminate the Section 16 agreement under which ESFA [would] provide mobilising services on their behalf. 

“Under the terms of the Section 16, the notice period is 18 months. The current partnership arrangement with WSFRS/WSCC is therefore due to end on the 17 February 2020.”

According to DCFO O’Brien’s report, WSFRS has already begun arrangements to outsource its control room and mobilising system to Surrey.

Following the collapse of the joint Sussex control centre plans, East Sussex Fire Authority commissioned consultancy group Mott MacDonald to look at alternative options.

These included outsourcing control room services to Surrey, as part of a three-way partnership with West Sussex. This arrangement would be expected to lead to total costs of around £11.107m over the next seven years – around £767,000 more than the lowest cost option.

It would also be expected to have further financial impacts as, in order to fund the required transitional costs, the fire authority would need to use reserves earmarked for other capital investments.

This would also bring forward the need to borrow to fund the capital programme and the associated borrowing costs will increase the pressure on the fire authority’s revenue budget.

The fire authority’s general reserves are already forecast to reduce to £2.119m by the end of this financial year and at 5.4 per cent will be below its existing policy threshold of 6 per cent.

DCFO O’Brien writes: “In coming to a preferred option therefore, it was recognised by [the] Senior Leadership Team that all options came with different strengths, weaknesses, risk and opportunities.

“As the Mott’s report identifies, it is clear that there are concerns in terms of the ability of Surrey FRS to deliver the proposed solution within the nominal timescale (end of March 2021), principally due to the fact that SFRS are currently on-boarding WSFRS and the fact that the final solution design needs to be agreed.

“Notwithstanding this Surrey have provided an indicative high-level project plan which does assume a March 2021 cut-over.

“However, it should be noted that there are also risks in relation to the other options which could equally impact on time and cost.

“In this respect, it is the view of officers that there is a significantly greater operational advantage to be gained from outsourcing to Surrey FRS than to the other potential provider.”

If the proposal is approved by East Sussex Fire Authority members, a further report seeking approval for the heads of terms of the new arrangement would be expected to be brought forward in February 2020.