Emergency service comms after 9/11

Ten years on from the 9/11 attacks in New York, we take a look at how the use of wireless has changed within public safety services

Emergency service comms after 9/11

If the recent unrest and rioting in the UK proved anything, it’s that communications systems and wireless in particular play a huge part in our lives today, whether we like it or not. While in this instance social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger were used to draw crowds together for all the wrong reasons, let’s not forget the huge positives such technology brings to us and the society we live in.

The flipside of this coin was the ease of communications and information gathering for responders within the blue-light services. Buoyed by the strong showing of TETRA and the UK’s Airwave public safety network in particular, emergency services were able to get on top of the situation.

Indeed, on an enterprise level wireless advances have enabled a business transformation that many just couldn’t have envisaged some ten years ago. Back then, there was little in the way of online social networking and the comms space looked very different.

Precursor to change

For instance, many outside of communications saw the terrible events of 9/11 as a precursor to a change in both technology and attitudes to wireless. The reality, however, was somewhat different.

By September 2001, the UK was well on the way to rationalising its emergency services radio provision. From fragmented procurement of mainly analogue systems of varying vintage, a programme of transition to a new digital TETRA network was being planned.

Today, Airwave sits at the core of the blue-light connectivity space, allowing transparency and seamless comms for all forces, but for those involved 9/11 wasn’t seen as the catalyst for this change.

As a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police reminds us: ‘The industry response to emergency services’ need for radio services in Britain preceded 9/11, although it undoubtedly now provides a service that is better able to meet the needs of a major incident.’

The catalyst

According to Tony Antoniou, executive director of British APCO (Association of Public Safety Communicatons Officers), the catalyst for change within the UK includes 9/11, the 7/7 London bombings and a number of natural disasters such as the Gloucester floods, rail crashes and the more recent shootings involving the likes of Derrick Bird and Raoul Moat.

‘There are less bespoke applications and more evidence of systems interfacing to complement each other in the operational environment,’ he says.

Euros Evans, CTO of Airwave, believes these events have brought into focus interoperability needs between public safety workers at ground level, highlighting the need for a communications platform that enables users to provide mutual aid from outside of “business as usual” geographic responsibilities to assist in key areas.

‘Here in the UK, the benefits of mutual aid were evident during the recent riots, where public safety responders were able to assist in London using their devices in a transparent and seamless manner,’ he says.

Olaf Baars, deputy chief fire officer with Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service and previously CFOA (Chief Fire Officers Association) lead on control and communications issues, adds: ‘At the time of 9/11, the fire and rescue service was involved in regional collaborations to replace the wide area VHF system but, although this would have permitted regional interoperability, there would have been no guarantee that national interoperability could have been achieved and there was no real thought of supporting meaningful mobile data.’

Prior to this, Baars says that in-vehicle VHF analogue main-scheme wide-area voice communications that had been in place for 30 years were used. This was supplemented by analogue UHF for use at incidents using UHF handheld radio operating “back to back” for most incidents, but with the capability to deploy mobile repeaters for larger incidents. 

‘For some specific risk locations such as the London Underground, fixed repeaters were installed, sometimes with fixed leaky feeders for tricky coverage areas. Some services deployed cross-band repeaters to provide interconnectivity between the UHF and VHF systems,’ he adds. ‘This was often supplemented with GSM cellular telephony with priority access utilising ACOLC (Access Overload Control) (now MTPAS –Mobile Telecommunication Privileged Access Scheme). The UHF voice system still provides the main incident communications system today.’

Poor voice quality

Baars remembers the old VHF system being very basic, suffering from poor voice quality and increasingly cross-band interference, something that necessitated the addition of CTCSS (Continuous Tone-Coded Squelch System) to maintain usability. 

‘These systems supported basic voice communications but inhibited moving forward with data communications,’ he adds.

The limitations of the VHF system saw some services move to other PMR systems, further reducing the ability to interoperate. However, that UHF system did utilise common frequencies, supporting on-scene interoperability between personnel from different services and access to two inter-agency command channels to allow communication with the police on scene.

Some 10 years on, here we are, with all three blue-light services committed to the Airwave TETRA network, talk group management and what Baars refers to as ‘a degree of resilience’.

‘It provides for voice interoperability between the services, but does not support the now established business need for data communications,’ he adds.

However, he remains doubtful that all three have a common understanding of future requirements or the need to start thinking about replacing the current Airwave service.

‘There are many lessons to be learned from the mistakes and bad decisions that came out of the PSRCP (Public Safety Radio Communication Project) in the 1980s and in the three radio replacement projects that were run on a standalone service basis, not least the time taken to make anything happen and the compromises that have been accommodated in the process,’ says Baars. ‘If we are not proactive we will find that we are tied to obsolete technology that inhibits effective operations.’

Reduced cost

Like others, Baars believes there is a very persuasive argument that LTE could replace Airwave in the future as it provides good data capabilities at a reduced cost, based on the effects of the consumer market on the technology and the devices, not to mention the infrastructure. 

‘There remains a serious question about where “mission critical voice” sits in the development roadmap for this technology, particularly as this requirement is limited to a niche rather than consumer market,’ he says. Others within the industry believe that TETRA will remain the primary platform for mission critical voice for quite some time to come, as trying to force the LTE standard to meet mission critical requirements will bend it out of all shape.

However, with British APCO having adopted 4G/LTE as the broadband solution of choice for emergency services worldwide, Antoniou is in no doubt that applications integration with existing communications platforms offers an exciting opportunity for the emergency services market.

‘British APCO is actively working with APCO internationally to progress harmonisation,’ he adds. ‘As the world approaches major international disasters, the need for harmonised, ubiquitous communications will continue

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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