The UK government's ability to protect its citizens in the event of a large-scale terrorist attack has been called into question today following the revelation that work on a dedicated computer network to coordinate the emergency services' response to such a situation has stalled.
According to email newsletter E-Government Bulletin, the government's HAZMOD data network was originally intended to enable councils, hospitals, police and fire authorities to coordinate their responses to major accidents and civil emergencies.
In the event of a terrorist attack, HAZMOD would be used among other things to help emergency services identify the best evacuation routes and safe locations for civilians at risk.
It was set up by the Cabinet Office's Civil Contingency Secretariat, and was originally scheduled to launch in October 2002.
Trials of the network were completed in May 2001. However, the Cabinet Office confirmed this week that the project has been stalled by internal management changes. The project Web site states that the delays are "due to pressure of other work."
But sources involved in testing the network claimed other issues -- including a lack of funds and technical glitches -- were behind the decision to stop its development.
According to Gavin Macho, emergency planning manager at Vale of Glamorgan, major technical problems prevented many participants from accessing the central HAZMOD databases and tools remotely over the Internet. He told E-Government Bulletin: "It was just too slow and difficult to use. It was a disaster."
Mike Slaney, an emergency planning manager for Staffordshire and general secretary of the UK Emergency Planning Society, said his own enquiries have suggested the real reason for the current delays is a lack of money. "Apparently, it's on hold because there no funds to develop it further," Slaney is quoted as saying. "There were some initial technical problems but technical problems aren't insurmountable."
"We were extremely interested in the demonstrations, it would have meant a coordinated geographical information system for all emergency services and planners across the country."
Slaney added: "It would be ideally suited to terrorist incidents."
Suk Athwal, head of emergency planning research at the Cabinet Office, denied the HAZMOD project has been scrapped. "It's not entirely killed off," he is reported as saying. "Funding really isn't the problem. We are undergoing a period of reorganisation that has to be completed before work on HAZMOD can continue."
Derek Parkinson, features editor of E-Government Bulletin, said: "At a time of such concern over public safety, it is alarming that emergency services are being denied the tools they need by red tape in Whitehall."
He added: "It's difficult to believe but hard-pressed local emergency planners have received no significant budget rise since 11 September. The technology exists to help them, now the civil servants need to sort it out."