For the emergency services, the nature of the job has always been very mobile, not only when dealing with incidents, but also in prevention and protection areas as well. And, while in the past, all had to make do with
fixed-line communications, advances in technology have changed the job forever.
Wireless communication and mobile information has given frontline officers and support staff access to details that have traditionally been held on computers in offices. This means the right information at the right time is available where the job is taking place.
In the UK, the rollout of Airwave on the TETRA network is helping to provide a national mobile radio system across the fire, police and ambulance services.
‘Previously, each fire and rescue would run their own radio scheme,’ says Neil Moore, head of ICT at Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service and secretary to the CFOA ICT Management Group.
‘If they were canny, they would operate radio schemes so they could talk to fire and rescue services across their borders,’ he adds. ‘However, the problem comes once you start to go further afield. Increasingly, the work nowadays has a more national flavour and this is where local radio schemes ran into difficulty, with channels not being compatible.’
Moore says TETRA gives the fire service operational voice communications largely with the Airwave system, but that it is beginning to deploy mobile data terminals with a Wi-Fi connection within fire stations. This provides a wireless synchronisation of data between the centre to support data such as risk information. This would be synchronised via Wi-Fi through wireless access points within fire stations.
‘That’s a reasonable compromised approach for the moment, even though it doesn’t give you online minute by minute data. But for the sort of information that we are delivering to the fire ground, it’s not inappropriate for that at the moment,’ he adds.
In terms of the protection part of the business, where inspectors go out to premises, Moore says Hampshire is doing this via tablets and synchronising these with CFRMIS – a community risk system that holds information on premises and associated risks.
Interestingly, he says BlackBerry remains one of the key products he uses in terms of increasing efficiency of those out in the field, especially for taking care of admin on the go.
Tim Derbyshire, business change manager for the Mobile Information program at the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), believes that the introduction of things like BlackBerry, PDAs and mobile data terminals – predominantly using GPRS and 3G – have taken the police station to the officer, leaving them less reliant on fixed IT systems.
Derbyshire says the intention is to ‘disrupt and divert’ crime by spending more time out of the police station thus being more visible, which will act as a deterrent.
‘In the past, things would be logged in at the scene and then back on the computer by hand, so we’ve looked at what we can do to take the information we have and reuse it,’ he says. ‘This is key in terms of efficiency, gathering information once and using it many times. It’s about being smart with the information we have and using technology to push our effectiveness.
‘Instead of now going to an address, taking the details and feeding them back into the system at the station, we’re actually logging into a device of some sort, feeding details back to the station and we can do real-time crime pattern analysis.’
Derbyshire says the NPIA is also working on ISIS, an Information Systems Improvement Strategy aiming to bring information and sources together by applying common standards to information and systems that manage this.
‘If you track that through, the natural conclusion is rather than having 43 police forces with different solutions doing the same thing, we’ll start moving towards systems that can communicate more effectively with each other.’
According to Barry Thurston, director of service delivery at West Midlands Ambulance Service, who has been working on secondment to the Department of Health doing the national implementation for the ambulance radio programme, most ambulance services are already quite sophisticated on how they harness technology within the vehicles, using mobile data terminals with built-in tracking.
‘What we have bolted to the side of that is navigation and all of this is connected to the control room via a Computer Aided Despatch (CAD) system,’ he says.
‘So, for instance, a vehicle that is travelling around Birmingham would immediately flag up onto the system in the control room to say that it was the nearest appropriate vehicle to an incident – revealing the skill sets on board, whether it be paramedic, technician or doctor.’
Once they have that information, the case detail is sent to the vehicle, the crew press their mobile button to acknowledge they are en-route and the navigation system begins to talk them into the address.
‘That’s the current way that they do things,’ adds Thurston. ‘How we’ve done that in the past is based on GPRS, although we’ve had analogue voice on the vehicle for some time. We recently converted everything over to TETRA, but in the main we’re using this only for voice. GPRS is still the main bearer of data for ambulance services at the moment.’
Thurston says ambulance services are moving away from paper-based patient forms towards Emergency Care Systems – ruggedised laptops that emulate the patient report form, allowing details to be entered at the scene by paramedics, with hospitals being able to access this as soon as they are booked in. This is currently based on an encrypted GPRS application, but the plan is to move it over to TETRA at some point.
‘The benefit is that all of the data is more or less in real-time,’ he says. ‘So as soon as it’s filled in, it’s transmitted back and this means we can immediately audit, get the crews to alert hospitals and put them on standby. It also allows crews to transmit telemetry back to a hospital point or to their control room, which gives cardiac outputs so that the hospitals or the paramedic based in the control room can advise on how to treat the patient earlier or perhaps at home.’
Right now, Thurston says TETRA isn’t really a huge part of what he is doing, but like those within the other departments, he is noticing real changes in the way they operate.
‘The interesting thing is that voice is becoming less and less important to us with data becoming ever more focal in everything we do,’ he says. ‘For example, to get more efficiency out of the vehicles, we are starting to look at telemetry and putting barcoding asset tracking on them so we can tell when people have left bits of kit behind.
‘As technology improves and costs come down, I can imagine there would be demands for an always-on approach via 3G or Tetra,’ adds Moore.