The Airwave radio system in use
The Airwave radio system in use

The Department of Health has had to cease deployments of Airwave radio systems to ambulance trusts across England due to instability issues with the new touch screen controls.

Martin Flaherty, director of operations at London Ambulance Service NHS Trust, revealed the issue when responding to a request from the London Assembly to explain how difficulties are being addressed.

The London Assembly 7 July Review Committee warned that London Ambulance Service would be ill prepared for another underground terrorist attack due to continuous postponements of Airwave go-live date in its August report.

In a letter dated 30 October, Flaherty explained the cause of the delays: “Two weeks ago the Department of Health project team announced that the implementation of the ICCS [touch screen radio control system] had been paused for all ambulance control rooms across the country. The pause has been put in place to assess and address various instability issues experienced in the first few systems installed.”

The East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust was the first trust to receive the system in August, and has successfully rolled out a new digital radio system across Essex.

A DH spokesperson confirmed to E-Health Insider that some issues were being resolved with the ICCS stressing: “Work on the programme continues as normal, with trusts, including London continuing network testing and support and training in the meantime.”

No comment was made as to whether the September 2008 deadline would need to be extended.

However, Flaherty told the London Assembly in his letter: “Without the installation of the ICCS, the service will not be able to bring the system live in ‘front line’ A&E ambulances. At this time it is not possible to provide any estimate in terms of delay on the LAS project. It would be reasonable however to assume that completion by September 2008 is looking less likely.”

The DH signed a 13 year contract worth £390m with Airwave, to provide the new digital radio and communications system in July 2005.

Ambulance trusts were initially due to start taking delivery of the new radio systems from mid-2006 and full ‘roll-out’ was due to be completed by September 2008. London Ambulance Service were due to start their switch-over in summer 2007.

In its report, the 7/7 committee highlighted the extent to which the project has been delayed, originally due in 2006 they are now not expected until late this year.

“There has been some delay in the timetable for implementing Airwave across the service. At our meeting in November 2005 we were told that the London Ambulance Service was expecting to begin distributing Airwave radios in 2006 and complete the rollout in 2007.”

The report says most recently “In its update to the Committee in June 2007, the London Ambulance Service tells us that rollout will start in September 2007 and be completed by September 2008.”

However, in its response to the committee, Airwave denies delays have occurred: “The rollout for the London Ambulance Service was cited to have been hit by delays and risks to rollout dates. This is not the case: London Ambulance Service and the Department of Health have asked Airwave to advance the rollout ahead of the original contract which Airwave has agreed to do. Airwave is in fact accelerating the rollout.

“The company is not anticipating any delays and is working to rollout the service to each trust in England, Scotland and Wales over the next few months. Airwave is delighted in particular with the very positive feedback and reaction from users in the first ambulance trust to be equipped with Airwave in Essex.”

A London Ambulance spokesperson confirmed to EHI that they are continuing with the Airwave project and are determined to go-live as soon as possible – but could not say when.

London Ambulance said network testing and implementation, vehicle installations, creation of working practices, support processes and training packages are being investigated.

“To provide the contracted Airwave Service capacity for the London Ambulance Service, it will be necessary to upgrade a significant number of base stations across London…. Additionally there is a review of the current status of the national programme and Trust milestones being conducted by the [Department of Health] programme team. This may well result in some changes to the London programme,” the spokesperson added.

London Assembly 7/7 committee chairman, Richard Barnes, said he was determined to make sure Londoners were aware of progress in deploying the Airwave system.

“When we made recommendations for improving the emergency response to major incidents in London the committee were determined that, unlike some previous investigations, this report was not filed in the too hard to do tray. To ensure this doesn’t happen it is important that information on implementing changes like the introduction of Airwave radios for the emergency services is kept in the public domain.”