Police chiefs in flood-hit areas of Yorkshire are demanding answers from some of the nation’s biggest phone companies over the “major communications failure” that affected three vital services.
A flooded Vodafone telephone exchange in Leeds meant North Yorkshire Police’s non-emergency 101 phone line was out of action for three hours at the height of the floods which swamped the region over the festive period. An alternative number was in place for a further five days.
At the same time, the police internal radio network Airwave was struggling due to floods at sites in Leeds and York, forcing the use of an emergency mobile base to allow officers to communicate with each other.
Police also say that telephone giant BT had to re-route its 999 lines for North Yorkshire after flood waters entered its exchange in York, though no emergency calls were missed as a result.
Bosses claim the communications failures, which happened in “all sorts of different areas, all at the same time”, could potentially have led to lives being lost.
Senior officials have questioned the contingency put in place by BT, Vodafone and Airwave prior to the floods, which saw hundreds of homes evacuated across Yorkshire and millions of pounds of damage caused.
One thing you don’t want when dealing with a critical incident is a failure of your communication network, and we had it in all sorts of different areas, all at the same time.Tim Madgwick, North Yorkshire Police
North Yorkshire’s crime commissioner says the technological problems caused by flooding should be factored in when a new contract is handed out to run the 101 and 111 non-emergency phone services later this year.
The current supplier, Vodafone, saw its data centre in Leeds badly damaged by the Boxing Day floods, leaving customers with intermittent services.
Despite the problems experienced in North Yorkshire, neighbouring West Yorkshire Police said their communications were unaffected by the floods.
Tim Madgwick, deputy chief constable of North Yorkshire Police, told his colleagues at a recent meeting that the communications problems meant police were “in effect dealing with two incidents” after the Boxing Day floods.
He said: “There was the flooding and the impact it had on communities and businesses far wider than just North Yorkshire, because the business impact on West Yorkshire was significant. The other issue was a major failure in relation to communications.
“One thing you don’t want when dealing with a critical incident is a failure of your communication network, and we had it in all sorts of different areas, all at the same time.”
Mr Madgwick added that the problems showed the importance of the back-up plans put in place by major companies given communications contracts for public services in Yorkshire.
He said: “We can all debate what unprecedented rainfall is but we would expect really large organisations to have good contingency plans.
“One of the things we experienced as gold commanders was trying to understand, where was the contingency plan and how effective was the contingency plan.
“There will be a mixture of answers to that, I am not saying one was good and another was bad. But it was a question that was continually asked, and I think needs to be picked up in a co-ordinated way.”
BT said earlier this month that its telephone exchange in Stonebow, York, had never flooded before and was not thought to be a risk.
The sheer volume of water caused the mains power and back-up generators to fail, with the reserve batteries designed to support essential services then becoming exhausted.
Chief constable Dave Jones said the failings were raised with the Prime Minister during his visit to York and later with the members of the Government’s emergency COBRA committee.
He said: “It is the lessons learnt now, which is how we protect the infrastructure in the area, which is BT exchanges, and sub-stations, all of which can be very vulnerable to flooding.”
Crime commissioner Julia Mulligan said there were several communications contracts coming up for renewal in the near future, and that “there have been issues with resilience in difficult circumstances with particular suppliers”.
She said: “I am wondering how those type of issues that are experienced on a local level might be filtered up to a national level, where things could be looked at, particularly around the procurement going on at the moment for the 101/111 numbers.
“I was at the last national meeting on that and some of the issues discussed are pertinent for the way that contract needs to be looked at.”
It was announced in November that internal communications for police, paramedics and firefighters will be moved off the bespoke Airwave network and onto EE’s 4G mobile broadband service from 2017.
The floods in North Yorkshire were described by the county’s assistant chief constable Ken McIntosh as “probably the most challenging set of circumstances that I have ever had to deal with in that position”.
He said: “We joked that when we train we do table-top exercises where we sit with partners and get papers fed to us, and are given a scenario, and it gets progressively worse during the day.
“This would have been your worst nightmare table-top exercise, that was reflected across partners, it was particularly challenging.”
Six of the 600 homes evacuated in York because of the floods were burgled, the meeting heard, and a suspect from North Yorkshire was arrested in connection with all six incidents.
An Airwave spokesperson said: “In response to recent flooding in Yorkshire, we immediately deployed our expert teams to work directly with the emergency services to minimise the impact and ensure that our resilient Network remained operational.
“We also dispatched one of our Emergency Response Vehicles to provide additional coverage to the impacted areas. Throughout the floods, our focus remained on working closely with Yorkshire’s emergency services and maintaining their critical communication service.”
A Vodafone spokeswoman said: “As previously stated, we had engineers working from Boxing Day to mitigate any customer impact. However, it was clear that it would take a little time for us to repair the damage caused to the site. Once we were given access, we installed generators and other recovery equipment to bring the network back into service. We sincerely apologise for any inconvenience caused to customers.”
A BT spokeswoman said: “Unprecedented flooding in York resulted in a loss of power at our York exchange and a loss of phone and broadband services.
“Those people in York who lost their landline services may still have been able to call 999 from a mobile phone (dependant on local mobile network coverage), and would have been answered by 999 call handlers who continued to manage calls from the York area throughout this period.
“This is the first time the building has flooded and it was not previously thought to be in an area at risk. After pumping out more than 1.8 million litres of flood water engineers worked round the clock and restored the majority of phone and broadband services in less than 36 hours.
“We have already begun a full risk assessment of our York exchange to identify how better protect it in the event of further flooding on this scale and are engaging with the Government via the Electronic Communications Resilience and Response Group (EC-RRG) to better understand how flooding impacts the sector and what we can learn from incidents like York.”