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EDITIONS
 Wednesday, 27 November, 2002, 15:23 GMT
The price of cost-cutting
An ambulance control room
Unison is against shared control rooms
The prime minister has been so impressed by the success of centralised control rooms set up by the military, fire service and the police during the fire dispute he has ordered a report into whether it would work for the 999 services. But the omens from Teesside are not good.


The country's largest union, Unison, is dead set against any move towards merging ambulance, fire and police control rooms.

So is the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which sees the plan as part of a hidden agenda to cut jobs.

But the Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file police officers, has no objection in principle.

Everything is being driven by auditors

Steve Gregg
Combined control rooms were piloted in Cleveland in 2000.

The police and ambulance switchboards were merged but the fire brigade has never come on board because of FBU objections.

An FBU spokesman told BBC News Online: "One of the problems is that if you get a police control room going down then 999 calls can be backed up to the fire and ambulance control rooms.

"But if you have one centralised control room and that goes down, you're knackered."

'Eggs in one basket'

The FBU's regional chairman, Steve Gregg, said: "Our initial objections were based on the fact that you shouldn't put all your eggs in one basket."

He said their point was proved with tragic consequences during the pilot project when the computers crashed, leading to two deaths.

An ambulance control room
Jobs would be lost if control rooms were merged
In one instance a fire engine instead of an ambulance was sent to a home in Hartlepool.

On the second occasion a man rang 999 because his wife was suffering a heart attack.

Mr Gregg said: "The shared control room had crashed so he was put through to a fire control room operator who spent 40 minutes trying to get through to the ambulances.

"By the time an ambulance did eventually arrive the old lady had sadly died."

Mr Gregg said the fire control room operator had gone on sick leave with stress after the incident because he felt so bad about being unable to save a life.

He said that although the police and ambulance services continued to share a control room there were "strong rumours" the ambulance control room was about to be relocated.

Industrial action threatened

Mr Gregg said: "The fire service managers wanted us to join but we raised our objections repeatedly and balloted for industrial action on the issue. In the end they backed off."

He said: "It may have been teething problems with the computers but you simply can't afford teething problems when lives are at risk."

A spokesman for Tees, East and North Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust (TENYAS) told BBC News Online: "No deaths can be directly attributed to any failure of the use of the single (control room) software."

Mr Gregg said the idea of merging control rooms was part of the government's demand for cost-cutting and he added: "Everything is being driven by auditors."

Anyone who has to deal with a call centre will know just how difficult and frustrating the experience can be

Maggie Dunn, Unison
But a Police Federation spokesman told BBC News Online: "As long as we can serve the public to the best effect we don't have any objection.

"It will help to trim costs but whether it will lead to job cuts I don't know."

Unison's senior national health officer, Maggie Dunn, has written to local government minister Nick Raynsford to voice "strong objections" to the plans.

She said: "The proposals will turn emergency control rooms into call centres and anyone who has to deal with a call centre will know just how difficult and frustrating the experience can be.

"You can't afford to have 'call waiting' while people's lives are at risk.

"These jobs are not interchangeable and it is a gross simplification to suggest that they are."

Unison says ambulance controllers have special skills which often meant the difference between life and death, while fire controllers have a distinct but equally vital role.


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