Working for a voluntary organisation such as the British Red Cross brings its own unique pressures when it comes to communications planning and wireless in particular.
Indeed, according to Brian Everard, national emergency communications programme manager, the price pressures the Red Cross faces as a voluntary organisation are much more intense than those of commercial enterprises.
This, he says, means negotiating contracts between twelve months and two years or sometimes longer if there are real financial and service provision benefits to be had.
‘I can remember working in other NGOs where the contracts were twelve months and we would negotiate every year on pricing as we didn’t want to be locked into rapidly changing prices,’ he says.
‘This means being aware of market prices, the way in which they are moving and very much aware that we are dealing with donor money and must be very careful with it. As a result, it sometimes takes longer to finalise a contract because of this, but we‘re not paying shareholders and we’re not paying profits so we have to be slicker and better,’ he adds.
However, at 61, Everard is an old hand at this game, having been involved in communications for more than 20 years – whether it be satellite, data or radio – and it’s a path that has seen him traverse governmental, military, global finance and NGO sectors along the way.
His recent career saw a stint with Oxfam and as a director of a consortium of NGOs based in the USA. Then there was time spent with the United Nations helping with the design of solutions put forward as part of the emergency telecoms cluster and technical solutions used in places like Mozambique, Peru, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
‘Bascially lego-type solutions that start small and work out as the number of responders and organisations increase,’ he says.
Then in November 2008, having just finished up contracts with Oxfam and Water Aid, he was approached by the British Red Cross about a project they had in mind to improve communications with regards to emergency response within the UK. Of course, it quickly transpired that it was much more than a single, quick job though – more a number of projects covering a whole range of aspects from alerts through to the actual delivery of communications during an emergency on a UK-wide basis.
Everard says that one of the objectives of the campaign was to provide a common and standard platform for the British Red Cross throughout the UK to enable it to alert, warn and inform its staff and volunteers of disasters and emergency response requirements in particular areas.
In terms of scale, the UK operation involves 21 areas split up into four territories including Northern Ireland. And with around 3,300 employees and some 30,000 volunteers, the scope of delivering a communications system to all of these and the potential emergencies that could affect each – with a secondary backup of the communications systems that could be used during normal first aid events – wasn’t easy.
‘We had to look at the interoperability between the organisation and our category one and category two partners such as the ambulance, fire and police services where necessary,’ says Everard.
This in itself proved difficult because of a diverse number of areas within the organisation that have different ways of working with local partners and services.
‘There was not a standard that we could identify so the solutions have had to be adapted to meet all the requirements of our partners and some of the nuances that you get are very difficult and challenging,’ he explains.
In terms of wireless the British Red Cross uses a variety of equipment, primarily analogue radio, VHF and UHF, both in a mobile mode and from static and fixed sites. In London, for instance, they have several repeater sites that are hosted by commercial organisations and this is repeated in other parts of the country.
During a first aid event the British Red Cross uses VHF and UHF radios in a back-to-back mode. Equally, VHF base stations and repeaters are used to perform the same communications where events are more complicated.
‘On top of our VHF and UHF radios we are in the process of implementing Airwave across the UK mainland, which is there to enable command and control and interoperability with category one partners bearing in mind their move to Airwave,’ he says.
The actual radio equipment comes in a variety of forms from a range of providers but Everard says things are put out to tender in the normal fashion, with respondees judged on pricing and service.
‘Within the wireless communications arena we use Blackberry, Wi-Fi, 3G, GPRS, sat phones and satellite systems,’ he says, ‘just about all the communications systems there are out there, but its very much horses for courses.’
For initial emergency responses, Everard says the Red Cross uses back-to-back radio, satelitte phones and broadband systems from Inmarsat and Thuraya.
‘Clearly voice communications would also include Iridium because people like Thuraya are not global. There’s only Inmarsat and Iridium who are truly global,’ he says.
Before Airwave came in, Everard says he had to go out and obtain a TEA2 licence from Ofcom as a national organisation.
‘They also awarded a sub-licence to work with the ambulance partners and both applied to the UK mainland,’ he adds. ‘Also, within the UK there was little use for sat phones for emergency response, and when you look at resilient communications then clearly satellite telephony has to be one of the items in your tool box.’
While he feels some may regard this as overkill, Everard explains that if you look at international disasters, such as Haiti, then the likelihood is that any communications in that location are likely to be partially or completely destroyed, or at the very least heavily overloaded.
‘You need to get critical information in and out to your field staff and through your command structure,’ he affirms.
Looking at current and future technologies, Everard says he is keeping an eye both on the LTE broadband satellite and the Wi-Fi marketplace.
The digital radio market is also of interest but he remains concerned that this and its associated technologies, such as dMR and dPMR, seem to be competing with each other at the moment.
‘They’re appealing but the market is not mature enough. If you take a choice at the moment you could end up with the wrong one and it’s quite possible you might not be able to work with a partner organisation in digital radio as they’ve gone down another route. So although we have a mix of radio equipment, we operate purely in the analogue environment.
‘We could move into the digital market and operate on these systems, but they’re incompatible with each other, and from our point of view we would have to remove a whole chunk of analogue radios and there doesn’t appear to be at the moment any financial or service benefit to doing that,’ he says.