Anumber of ambulance services are having to run multiple systems simultaneously as the Government rolls out its digital radio upgrade on all ambulance services.
On completion, the more reliable kit that is being installed in vehicles will provide significant operational advantages. But as the upgrade process continues, many ambulance services are finding that, while some vehicles in their fleet have been upgraded to the latest technology, others continue to use previous generation communications.
Managing that in a standard operations room requires at least two systems to run concurrently, and each despatch operator to be able to work with both systems effectively. However, some services face even greater complexity in their operations and are running up to five systems at the same time.
Yorkshire Ambulance Service, which was established in 2006 with the amalgamation of three ambulance trusts in Yorkshire, faces not only the challenge of new communications being installed, but also the complete restructuring of the traditional operations of the three trusts.
That process is well underway, with two of the trusts centralised at Yorkshire Ambulance Service’s Wakefield operations base to cover central and south Yorkshire, and the north of the county covered from an operations room in York. The York control room is due to be upgraded and will be given disaster recovery capability for the trust, so if one site fails the other can provide back up.
‘The idea behind the amalgamation was to enable cost savings,’ explains Steve Desay, external technical consultant with Yorkshire Ambulance Service.
‘Around that, there’s a lot going on. Most of the equipment on the desktop has been replaced along with the back end systems. Ambulance services have historically and traditionally used analogue radio, but now trusts have responsibility for larger areas they must have much more reliable communications centre functionality.’
The Government’s initiative to upgrade the digital communications capability of ambulance services has been a rolling programme that has seen ambulance service fleets equipped in phases. Yorkshire Ambulance Service had its first vehicles fitted with the new equipment at the end of 2009, and the upgrades will continue through the year with four vehicles per day being equipped.
‘The programme for vehicle fit-out presented a problem to manage logistically and operationally so the Trust needed a solution,’ says Desay. ‘The chosen solution gives the Trust the ability to control multiple radio assets from a single graphical user instance and addresses the need to serve talk groups and monitor multiple channels and multiple users.’
The solution selected by Yorkshire Ambulance Service is the C-Soft Plus TETRA radio dispatcher from Cyfas Systems. Using VoIP and digital technology, the system provides group calls, private calls – significant in this market for patient confidentiality, ISSI to call-sign conversion, status display and TETRA SDS messaging. The system is operated using touch-screen controls via an intuitive user interface, which enables operators to prioritise specific communications, easily identify the source of each communication and send updates to groups.
‘C-Soft Plus, attached to a Sepura TETRA radio [the emergency services standard device] can offer more functionality in the control room,’ says Gareth Godfrey, sales manager at Cyfas Systems. ‘For the ambulance sector, which wants to reduce the call charges it incurs over the radio network and migrate to more point-to-point calls, the control the solution provides is ideal. Calls are set up easily and when operators see a specific call sign, they can make the call to the correct person.’
Godfrey gives the example of an ambulance on the way to a road traffic collision. ‘Quite often, the crew will call in to say they are on the way via a group call,’ he explains. ‘Now Control can initiate a private call to the handset.’
To address its interim need, Yorkshire Ambulance Services has deployed more than 20 C-Soft Plus units. The deployment has been so successful that the service has plans to continue using the equipment after its strategic platform becomes available. The system and its less fully-featured soft radio control C30 product are well suited to use in Passenger Transport Services, a less demanding environment that typically requires the individual driver to control communications rather than group calls, as well as for use as a back up should the strategic platform fail.
‘C-Soft Plus has allowed us to keep very dependent projects on track, the product has been delivered on time, with good engineers and Cyfas has been highly flexible,’ says Desay.
From an operational point of view, the system has already delivered clear benefits, says Chris Lucas, emergency preparedness manager, access and response, Yorkshire Ambulance Service. ‘South Yorkshire Ambulance Service [before the amalgamation] had Airwave equipment – the digital emergency radio network – in its vehicles 18-24 months ago.
‘But it didn’t have the intelligence in the control room, so it was confined to working from fixed radios on the desktop with very tiny displays. Now, we have richer, more comprehensive information available on screen with no scrolling through the radio display, just the touch of a finger. It’s much easier to manage.’
For Desay, the cost saving capability is critical. ‘There needs to be a cost saving element and there is,’ he adds. ‘Group calls are generally the more expensive route and we need to keep costs down. Each ambulance service signs up to a calling package contract with Airwave and gets debited from that package on every call that is made. C-Soft Plus enables us to control and dictate how that asset is used. For instance, if you set up a person-to-person call across three masts rather than 30, you generate significant savings.
‘The idea is to stay within that airtime contract to save cost, but it’s also worth remembering that Airwave is the national emergency services network. It’s national infrastructure and if it’s clogged up with people making group calls, it could hinder the work of other services such as the police, maritime or fire and rescue services.’