Wireless in the police force

In an 11-year stint as director of information for Nottinghamshire Police, Martin Hansen has seen it all when it comes to wireless. Here, he tells Mark Dye about his journey along the way

Wireless in the police force

When Martin Hansen joined Nottinghamshire police as director of information services back in 1999, there wasn’t really much of a wireless strategy going on. In fact, the only word that springs to mind when we ask him about it is, ‘Horrible’. Praise indeed.

‘What we did have was UHF and VHF,’ he says. ‘VHF in cars. Two channels and that was about it. Cars could talk to cars but the officers on foot had UHF radios and couldn’t talk to cars unless somebody patched them through.’

Worse still, they could only talk to officers who were connected to the same channel number as they were.

‘It was a bit like choosing an old Bakelite radio,’ he says.  Hansen explains that each of the 20 odd masts they had at the time transmitted on a different channel meaning officers could talk to the person on their patch, but that was it.

‘So within some of our city areas, if you went from one side of the city to the other and wanted to talk to two officers on foot you had to keep on returning depending on where you were,’ he adds.

‘And, of course, you couldn’t talk to anyone in a car anyway. So you’d have officers on the beat and cars would go whizzing past and they’d think, ‘Well what’s all that about then?’ And there was literally no way other than talking to the control room and telling them what was going on for them to really find out what was happening.’

Similarly, problems occurred in the CCTV rooms where if they could see what was happening on the TV, it was very difficult for them to talk to the officers actually on the beat involved in the incident because they couldn’t get onto the same frequency as them, with those in the control room potentially being many miles away from where an incident was occurring.

‘It was a 1980s system that was on its last legs, but we were waiting for Airwave and we really needed it,’ says Hansen.

Having cut his teeth in consulting before moving into a project management position within the oil services industry and becoming IT Director for Gala, Hansen says the wide variety of experiences across these verticals enabled him to bring real depth to the table in his current role.

‘I’ve worked for consultancy, oil services, charities and leisure,’ he adds. ‘It enables you to look at something objectively – certainly in the early days of something - and see what it actually is before you get plunged into the detail of it.’

With 90 members in his ICT and Information Management team, Hansen says he has always looked for ways to improve the force as a policing unit overall.

‘I started to see quite early on the fact that the place for officers to be is either in the car or on the beat,’ he adds.

‘While they’re in stations by and large, they’re not where they should be. And in terms of collecting data, my experience, certainly coming back to Schlumberger Sema, was that the closer you can get to the point where you’re collecting information and use it, the more effective it is.

‘I kind of saw this image of concentric wings when I first arrived,’ he adds. ‘I thought we’d got IT with information in the main station. We then had small contact points – but the connectivity from the contact points into the main station was such that the IT there was practically unusable as it was on ISDN lines and very slow.’

Hansen says the first thing he did was to extend information out to the point where the wires went before seeing if they could extend information, both in the use of it and the collection of it, to cars.

‘There were one or two experiments all around the country using different sorts of wireless which were going to be replaced by Airwave,’ he says. ‘But we had a long hard look at Airwave and Airwave Mobile, but it runs at about 4,000, which gets you text and that’s about it.’

The need to see pictures of potential missing people and offenders pushed him away from this and in the direction of BlackBerry, and this would in turn lead him towards his finest hour.

Back in October 2007 at the Labour Party Conference, Gordon Brown announced that £50m was being made available to provide additional mobile devices to front line officers within a year. As a result, the NPIA announced a competition for forces to compete for funding.

Hansen says although the Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire forces were developing mobile data independently of each other, they began to exchange information on what they were doing around this time.

This led to a partnership and it wasn’t long before he’d asked the Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Derbyshire and Lincolnshire forces to join them to form what we now know as the East Midlands Collaboration.

This joint proposal planned to provide some 4,135 mobile devices across the region, but in truth Hansen says they expected to top more than 6,000 men and women, around 2/3 of all officers in the region.

‘So Leicestershire carried on with their route around Toughbooks, Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire would do the same as Nottinghamshire with BlackBerry, and Derbyshire because of the relationship they had with Airwave would try their PDA system,’ he adds. 'This was then put together as a project and run as a programme with these five interlinked projects, each delivering what each force was going to have.’

In May 2008, the East Midlands Collaboration was awarded £8.3m by the NPIA and Hansen was really able to get to work with the various technologies, exposing some flaws along the way.

‘I’ll tell you what didn’t succeed and that was the TETRA handheld device,’ he says. ‘I’m not criticising Airwave, but if something is going to be made in small volumes then you end up with something fairly crude. The officers in Lincolnshire took one look at it and said “no”.’

Conversely, Hansen believes the BlackBerry turned out to be a very reliable piece of kit when teamed with software from Beat.

‘One of the key things we needed to do was to integrate the mobile delivery into the business process and take into account that someone out there now has this device,’ he explains. ‘That was the big challenge really – changing business process to exploit that people were mobile.' In terms of cost savings and benefits, Hansen feels these sit around opportunity and the increased amount of time officers spend out in the field.  

‘Even an officer sitting in the car in the corner of a market square doing his emails is much more available to deploy than someone doing his emails in a police station. And sometimes the speed at which you deploy is critical for getting an arrest,’ he adds.

Despite the problems with TETRA devices, Lincolnshire deciding to switch from PDA to BlackBerry, and apathy in some quarters, Hansen says the project was for the most part a success and that the East Midlands Collaboration exceeded his original expectations with some 5,326 devices being installed on the network.

That effort would soon be rewarded with the Guardian Computing Award for transformation and he is especially proud of that.

Hansen, who is retiring this year, hopes his legacy will be seen in this drive towards a more mobile officer, who is prepared for every eventuality.

‘It’s like moving over to a self-service side of things,’ he adds. ‘I think the days of police officers having lots of support staff are going to be limited, especially with the Government cuts coming through. So they are going to need to have this information to hand and in that sense mobile will always have an important role to play.’

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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