Safety communications are key to successful Olympics

Communications between the blue light services will be critical to staging a successful Games. Could they cope with a terrorist attack like 7/7?

Safety communications are key to successful Olympics
In the run-up to the Olympics, being able to cope with the policing and organisation of the huge influx of visitors to the capital and other host regions is a prime requirement.

Unfortunately, the real test will be whether the emergency services can cope with another traumatic event like the 7/7 bombings, which claimed 52 lives and brought London to a standstill. A report published last July by the Home Affairs Select Committee concluded that the London bus and Underground systems remain 'extremely vulnerable' to attack.

It noted that the key failing during the bomb attacks in 2005 was the inadequacy of emergency communications: 'Communications within and between the emergency services did not stand up on 7 July. As a result, individual emergency service personnel at the affected tube stations and at Tavistock Square could not communicate effectively, in some cases with each other, and in other cases with their control rooms.'

The main issue in 2005 was lack of an underground communication system for London Underground staff and the emergency services. The report said this was 'all the more damning since the need had been identified after the investigation into the fire at King's Cross Station in 1988'. Since the 2005 bombings, and a highly critical report by the London Assembly in 2007, a wake-up call has finally been heeded. The Government has signed off a £100m investment to take Airwave, a separate Tetra-based radio system that provides communication for the emergency services, onto the London Underground network.

The contract was completed last year, shortly before the home affairs report was published. MPs praised the contribution of Airwave, but warned that there was 'no room for complacency'. Ominously, they concluded: 'The London 2012 Olympics will also be another critical area of vulnerability.'

Wireless has spoken to representatives of the emergency services and members of the select committee to establish how far we have gone to protecting the Olympics, and what more needs to be done. The consensus emerging is that Airwave in the Underground has given a strong platform, and there are sound preparations underway for it to be embedded operationally in police, fire and ambulance services.

A Home Office spokesperson says: 'In terms of radio communications for the police, Airwave is the main tool.'

But some challenge the way the system has been implemented, while others want to see it fully tested. Even Airwave and the National Policing Improvement Authority (NPIA) want to see more capacity and extended coverage - for which a £40m contract was announced by the Home Office last November for further improvements to Airwave, specifically to meet the demands of the Olympics.

One area of debate surrounds the method of bringing the signal into the underground tunnels. A leaky feeder cable - a cable with perforations allowing radio signal to 'leak out'- has been selected as the method of choice.

One industry source says: 'The network is reliant on a leaky feeder cable to deliver signals. If it was compromised by a bomb, then potentially there will be a loss of signal and there would be no communications beyond the point of the blast.'

However, there are two such cables throughout the tunnels, one carrying signal from the previous station forwards, the other from the next station backwards. Hopefully, it would only be a matter of retreating a short distance to pick up the signal.

Airwave's London Underground programme manager, Ray Mason, says the matter has been considered exhaustively: 'We looked at umpteen ways of providing emergency coverage. The radiating cable may well be damaged, but it will continue operating. We are not above ground so we had established that the signal will bounce off the walls of the tunnel, which could improve reception.'

Failing this, there is the direct communications mode, which allows one radio set to communicate with another one nearby; however, the industry source adds: 'But that could get complicated and any command and control structure would go completely, as officers were not built to take instructions from above.'

Learning from 7/7, Airwave has also created a fleet of Emergency Response Vehicles (ERVs), which can quickly be deployed to bring the new feeder into the damaged tunnel within 90 minutes.

Tom Brake, Lib Dems, Home Affairs Select CommitteeNevertheless, this is an area MPs will interrogate further. Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake, a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, tells Wireless he would be 'asking the question' about the leaky feeder.

Meanwhile, MPs are concerned over the testing of Airwave, and its interoperability and capacity. 'Clearly there are going to be a large number of organisations that will use Airwave.

It's simply not possible to test for the scale of organisations that will need to use it should there be an incident. I suspect the first real test will be if and when a large scale incident happens,' says Brake.

If the Conservatives win the election they will order an audit. Baroness Neville-Jones, shadow security minister says: 'We have heard problems about the capacity of Airwave. On entering office, a Conservative Government would conduct an audit of the Olympic Safety and Security Strategy to ensure that delivery is on target and that the work done is sufficient. This would include a review of the communications component.'

Planning ahead
Ray Mason has his own wish list for Airwave. 'I would certainly like to increase the capacity of some stations, and that is something we are planning to change. We are also extending Airwave into 15 tunnels that were originally excluded from the scope of works.'

For now, access to the Airwave system is being restricted to only certain talk groups on the Valid Profile. 'We have put good operational procedures such as radio discipline in place to make sure spectrum is not used unnecessarily,' he adds.

Nick Deyes, programme director for Olympics Airwaves work and head of information and communications development at the NPIA - which has the lead role for the emergency services, gives his view of Airwave's contribution.

Nick Deyes, programme director, NPIA Quote'Airwave in the Underground was a £100m contract completed last year, and gives us everything we need for voice communication. Data is a different story.

'[The initial Airwave contract] has been delivered and that's meeting operational requirements.'

He says of the new phase announced in November: 'There is a fair amount of work going on to increase capacity in the east end of London [for the Olympics]. There is lots of work around the Olympic village so it can cope with additional thousands of police officers and the density of usage that is unusual. There are changes to the Motorola software going on as well so it can cope with additional capacity.'

Addressing Tom Brake's other concerns, he adds: 'There is a lot more focus on capacity planning and capacity management. For example, we will have Airwave engineers put up in hotels very close to or within the Olympic village.'

Apart from Airwave in the Underground, the other major change - which is still in flight - is the other eme
Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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