UK government takes measures to boost resilience of 999 call system

The government has announced measures to beef up the resilience of the UK’s 999 emergency call handling system.

This comes nine months after communications regulator Ofcom launched an investigation into service operator BT following a UK-wide disruption to emergency call services on 25 June 2023 when 999 callers were unable to connect with the services they required due to a technical issue – the first technical fault of its kind in almost a century of operation.

First responders affected in the incident included Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service, which warned of a 30-second delay to connect to 999 while the incident was ongoing, and Suffolk Police, which said its system was not working to full capacity. The Metropolitan Police and Bedfordshire Police were also said to have reported difficulties.

Issues were said to have persisted even after BT switched to a backup system, and a UK government source at the time said it had taken the telco nearly three hours to alert ministers to the problems it was experiencing.

Ofcom rules require BT and other providers to take all necessary measures to ensure uninterrupted access to emergency organisations as part of any call services offered. In the immediate aftermath of the event, BT launched a comprehensive investigation into the fault and published its report on 29 July 2023, taking full responsibility for the disruption and recognising the critical national importance of the 999 infrastructure.

The new measures come as the UK’s Department for Science, Innovation and Technology published a review into the incident and established six recommendations to bolster the robustness of the emergency communications system. The UK government stressed that while the emergency call service has historically proven very resilient, the review represents an important move to minimise any potential future risks to the public.

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. The UK 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 call volumes and simultaneous incidents, ensuring the system is robust and can effectively respond to a wide range of emergency scenarios in the future.   

The measures will principally see a notification system between BT, the emergency services and UK government put in place to ensure all ambulance trusts and police forces can rapidly enact a coordinated response. Furthermore, the most pressing recommendation surrounding the technical fault is said to have been completed already, with BT implementing immediate improvements to its systems to prevent similar future occurrences. 

Alongside measures to improve risk management and communications, the new recommendations focus on enhancing the UK government’s oversight during potential future incidents. The UK government assured that improvements will be made by testing of the 999 Strategic Incident Group – a dedicated cross-system incident notification and response protocol – and establishing guidance to help emergency services and the government communicate with the public during call system incidents.

In what it assured would be “the unlikely event” of a future incident, the government said it would also issue public advice on what to do to continue to reach the emergency services.

Commenting on the review and its aims, UK 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.”

BT Group’s chief security and networks officer, Howard Watson, said the level of disruption to the service last June had never been seen before and expressed sincere apologies 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,” he said.

“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,” added Watson.

As part of the aim to enhance public awareness and preparedness further, a cross-government communication plan will also be developed by the end of April 2024, creating a central point of public advice for various scenarios involving potential disruptions to 999 calls and covering all four UK nations. All recommendations are to be implemented by the end of April 2024.

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