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New measures to boost resilience of 999 call system

Business / Sun 24th Mar 2024 at 09:16am

NEW measures will boost the resilience of the 999-call handling system, after the first technical fault of its kind in almost a century affected the platform last summer.

A notification system between BT, the emergency services and UK Government has been put in place to ensure all ambulance trusts and police forces can rapidly enact a coordinated response.

In the unlikely event of a future incident, the Government would also issue public advice on what to do to continue to reach the emergency services.

The new measures come as the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology has today (21 March 2024) published a review into the extremely rare incident which occurred last July and established six recommendations to bolster the robustness of the system.

While the emergency call service has historically proven itself to be very resilient, the review represents an important move to ensure any potential future risks to the public are minimised.

The most pressing recommendation has already been completed, with BT implementing immediate improvements to its systems to prevent similar future occurrences.

In the immediate aftermath of the event, BT launched a comprehensive investigation into the fault and published their report on 29 July 23, taking full responsibility for the disruption and recognising the critical national importance their 999 infrastructure plays.

Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology Michelle Donelan said:

“The incident in June of last year marked the first significant disruption to the 999 system in nearly 90 years. We are determined to prevent history from repeating itself, with public safety being absolutely paramount.

“This is why, following a thorough review of the incident, we are working with BT to establish enhanced resilience measures, ensuring the UK is always prepared to effectively address major emergencies.

“The government remains steadfast in its commitment to safeguarding the public’s safety and well-being.”

Alongside measures to improve risk management and communications, the new recommendations focus on enhancing the UK Government’s oversight during potential future incidents.

The Cabinet Office will coordinate efforts to instil greater clarity on responsibilities and accountability for the 999 system’s resilience to a range of challenges. These include cyber-attacks, natural disasters, high numbers of calls, and simultaneous incidents, ensuring the system is robust and can effectively respond to a wide range of emergency scenarios in the future.

These improvements will be made by testing of the Government’s 999 Strategic Incident Group – a dedicated cross-system incident notification and response protocol – and establish guidance to help emergency services and the Government communicate with the public during call system incidents.

To further enhance public awareness and preparedness, a cross-government communication plan will also be developed by the end of April, creating a central point of public advice for various scenarios involving potential disruptions to 999 calls and covering all four nations of the UK.

The review has drawn on the evidence and expertise of all relevant stakeholders, including Emergency Authorities, BT, Ofcom, Government departments, the Devolved Administrations, and Local Resilience Forums. 

All recommendations are to be implemented by the end of April 2024.

Howard Watson, Chief Security and Networks Officer, BT Group, said:

“At BT Group we take great pride in underpinning the national 999 service and recognise the critical importance our infrastructure plays. The level of disruption to the service on Sunday 25 June 2023 has never been seen before and we are sincerely sorry for the distress caused.

“While no technology is 100% resilient, we have built a highly robust network with multiple layers of protection to connect the public to blue light services in their time of need. We take our responsibility to the emergency services and the public seriously, and on this occasion we fell short of our own high standards for the 999 service.

“As outlined in the Government’s Post-Incident Review, we have put in place a comprehensive improvement plan to prevent this series of events reoccurring. We are also committed to working with all 999 stakeholders to continue to improve end-to-end resilience of the system.”

Chair of the 999/112 Liaison Committee and Assistant Chief Constable Catherine Akehurst said:

“I welcome the findings of the review, which has had public safety at the forefront. Although this incident was extremely rare it is essential that we learn the lessons from it, and the review’s recommendations will further strengthen arrangements across the country. This includes coordination across all partners in the system – across BT, the Emergency Authorities around the country, and Government – to ensure public can continue to access the emergency services whenever they need to.”

The UK Government will continue to work closely with BT and industry stakeholders to provide reliable access to the UKs emergency services. The recommendations detailed in the Review will be overseen by Senior Government Officials to ensure the continued resilience of the Public Emergency Call Service.

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