East Anglia: Fire control faces crucial decision

TAXPAYERS could be facing a further �3 million-plus bill as the controversial new regional fire control centre faces another delay of more than a year.

There is now a massive question mark hanging over how emergency calls to Suffolk fire service will be handled when the Colchester Road fire station in Ipswich closes this time next year.

And council taxpayers in Suffolk could be left facing with another huge bill – still to be worked out – to come up with a temporary solution to the problem.

Suffolk’s fire control centre is due to be combined with those from the other five counties in the East of England at a new high-tech control centre at Waterbeach just outside Cambridge.

This centre was completed in 2007 and was due to open in 2008 – however it has been beset with delays because of major problems in making computer systems work.

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Currently the government hopes it will become operational in November 2011 – but fire service bosses have been warned that this timetable is looking over-optimistic and fear it will not be open until the end of 2012 at the earliest, and possibly not until the middle of 2013.

The control centre stands almost completely empty, but it is costing the government an estimated �166,000 a month in maintenance.

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If it stands empty from November next year until mid-2013 that would eat up an extra �3,054,000 in service charges.

The current control room is part of the Colchester Road fire station in Ipswich which is due to close next November when a new station on Ransomes’ Europark opens. That has no room for a control room.

Assistant chief fire officer Mark Sanderson said the service was looking at a number of options if the regional centre is not ready – but time was running out for a final decision.

He said: “We can either set up an interim control centre in Suffolk to tide us over until the regional centre comes on line, or we could combine with the control centre of a neighbouring service – Essex, Cambridgeshire or Norfolk.

“If we stay in Suffolk we could try to use the emergency control room at Felixstowe fire station, although that is not designed for use beyond a very short time and would need to be significantly improved or we open an interim centre somewhere else, possibly Adastral Park at Martlesham.”

But he warned a decision would have to be made soon.

“It would take some time, up to eight months, to get an interim control room up and running and fully tested. You have to know everything is going to work in this business.”

The service was also talking to neighbouring counties and again decisions would have to be taken over the next few weeks if a merger was to be considered.

But there would be issues to be addressed because different services use different processes.

Mr Sanderson said ensuring Suffolk still had the use of a control centre was an absolute priority and who paid for it would have to be debated between the county council and central government.

He said: “I must emphasise that the regional control centres are a central government initiative and funded by them, not local authorities.”

Ipswich Conservative MP Ben Gummer said he would be writing to local government minister Bob Neil to demand that any costs associated with setting up an interim fire control room did not hit county council finances.

He said: “It is very frustrating to learn of what can only be described as a mess and there is no easy solution to the issue.

“However I shall be writing to the minister to seek an assurance that Suffolk County Council will not face any financial penalty as a result of a mess created by the previous government.”

A spokesman for the government’s department of communities and local government said officials were hoping that testing three of the nine regional control centres built over the last five years would start in the middle of next year with other centres coming on line later.

He was not able to say whether the East Anglian centre would be one of the first three to be trialed.

He added: “We are in discussion with Suffolk FRS over their plans. All Fire and Rescue Authorities are currently funded to maintain and replace their control room systems.”

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