Chris Marshall: Firefight over control rooms

Last week, it emerged that emergency service staff have twice been forced to rely on their local knowledge in recent months to help dispatch crews following computer failures at control rooms in Aberdeen.

Under Scotlands new single police and fire services, all control rooms north of Dundee will eventually be closed. Picture: JP

The details were obtained under Freedom of Information legislation by campaigners fighting to save the control rooms, which have been earmarked for closure as part of a cost-cutting drive. Under Scotland’s new single police and fire services, all control rooms north of Dundee will eventually be closed. Aberdeenshire, Western Isles and Orkney councils were among those writing to the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee ahead of yesterday’s meeting, arguing the closures will lead to a reduction in local knowledge, potentially putting lives at risk.

Aberdeenshire Council chief executive Colin Mackenzie accused the fire service of a “complete lack of meaningful consultation” over its decision to close its Aberdeen control room, while he said consultation from the police had been “minimal”. The councils all raised fears that call-centre operatives elsewhere in the country would not understand northern dialects or difficult place names.

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Yesterday, Derek Penman, HM Inspector of Constabulary in Scotland, appeared before the justice committee to tell MSPs that while there had been teething problems, the merger of the country’s eight legacy forces to form Police Scotland had been “effective” and had led to an “operationally stronger” police force. Mr Penman was Assistant Chief Constable for Police Scotland with responsibility for north Scotland until he took up his new post this year.

Given the numerous submissions to the committee on the subject of control room closures, you would have thought MSPs would be keen to raise the issue with Mr Penman.

But they failed to ask him or his counterpart, Steven Torrie, HM Chief Inspector of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, about the rationalisation plan.

In January, Scotland’s police and fire boards approved plans to reduce the number of control rooms, to save £74 million by 2026.

In its submission to the justice committee, Aberdeenshire Council highlighted the North-east’s strategic importance as the centre of oil industry. Campaigners have previously suggested that the control room closures could undermine responses to major emergencies such as a terrorist attack or a disaster such as Piper Alpha.

MSPs have been quick to take up the issue of armed police in recent weeks, something that has also caused public concern.

They have been right to do so, but they should not let Police Scotland off over control room closures either.