'Catastrophic' dispatch system 'causes fire engine delays'

A control room staff worker uses the Vision 4DS system Image copyright London Fire Brigade
Image caption Capita, the private company that runs Vision 4DS, was awarded a £19.6m contract to provide the system in March 2012

Firefighters are delayed in getting to emergencies due to a "catastrophic" dispatching system, the BBC has found.

According to sources, the system used by London Fire Brigade regularly crashes and often fails to dispatch the closest fire engine.

"There's no doubt that the safety of firefighters and the public has been compromised as a result," the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said.

Capita, which runs the system, said there were "very occasional problems".

The fire brigade said the system had "brought a range of improvements".

Pen and paper

The Vision 4DS system has crashed at least five times and once remained offline for three hours since its implementation in November 2015, publicly available documents show.

Control room workers were forced to use a pen and paper to take details and mobilise fire crews.

"It was like going back 40 years," one worker told the BBC.

Capita was awarded a £19.6m contract to provide the system to London Fire Brigade in March 2012.

A spokesperson said they were aware of "very occasional intermittent problems with the software".

They added the brigade had a "well-practised contingency plans in place to ensure the ability to respond to incidents is not impacted by any interruptions to its control centre service whatsoever".

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption London Fire Brigade's director of operations said the system provided greater detail to fire crews

At least 14 other emergencies, including fires and car crashes, have been affected by failures in the system, according to documents seen by the BBC.

However, the FBU estimates the number of cases affected could "run into the thousands".

In one incident, a woman lay trapped under a double-decker bus while the nearest available fire engine - which was 200m (650ft) down the road - was not mobilised. Fire services that did attend took six minutes to arrive.

"The worry is someone could be seriously injured, or maybe even lose their life," Paul Embery, London regional secretary to the FBU, said.

No deaths are known to be attributable to delays caused by the system.

The FBU has claimed an increase in control office staff signed off sick due to stress was also linked to frustrations with the system.

Image copyright Halim Shukri
Image caption The fire destroyed the Shukri family's two cars, a collection of tools and the garage

'House would have been gone'

A 75-year-old man began fighting a fire that had consumed his garage as he waited 14 minutes for a fire engine to arrive.

Halim Shukri said he believed "most of the stuff could have been saved" if firefighters arrived inside the six minute target.

A fault in the system meant fire engines had been dispatched from up to eight miles (12km) away, while the nearest station - nearly two miles down the road - was not contacted for more than 15 minutes.

"A delay of another five minutes and this house would have been gone," Mr Shukri added.

Originally scheduled to launch in July 2014, the system was not implemented until November 2015 following concerns raised by fire brigade staff.

Capita was subject to at least £600,000 in "delay payments" under the terms of the contract.

During the procurement process, the company promised an improved search facility, more accurate mobilising and new technology to locate callers using their mobile phones.

"We received several guarantees... but when it went live it was catastrophic," said Tam MacFarlane, a member of the FBU executive council.

While there have been improvements, control room staff are working "with one arm tied behind their back because it's still dogged by technical glitches," Mr Embery said.

"Questions need to be asked why so much taxpayers' money was spent on a system that clearly was not ready to go live when it did," he added.

'Better and safer'

A London Fire Brigade spokesman said all the issues raised by the BBC investigation were "being dealt with by the brigade and Capita".

Figures from the brigade show crews have successfully attended more than 100,000 emergency incidents under the new system.

Its director of operations, Dave Brown, said the system provided greater detail to fire crews "meaning a better and even safer system of work for firefighters".

He added: "So far the system has contributed to a seven second improvement in the average first appliance attendance times for fire engines across London."

The Vision system is currently also used by fire brigades in Dorset, Wiltshire, Devon, Somerset and Hampshire.

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