The UK police, fire and ambulance services have not escaped the current Government’s austerity programme. Savings of up to 20% are being asked for and must be delivered without any impact on service levels.
So it is hardly surprising that Airwave Solutions, which runs the TETRA communications network for the emergency services, is keen to play its part in helping its customers meet their tough new goals.
David Sangster, UK services director for Airwave, says that Airwave subsidiary Kelvin Connect, which he also chairs, is putting a lot of energy into helping frontline officers work smarter in the field. ‘The idea is to move to a paperless environment and bring apps to the frontline officers,’ he explains.
The company has developed some 37 apps to date, including one that allows an officer to interrogate the Police National Computer (PNC) via a smartphone. By adding a device to the side of the phone, an officer can do a fingerprint check, while another app enables witness statements to be taken down on an electronic notebook using a stylus. The latter has been tested in court by Surrey Police and been deemed admissible as evidence.
‘Most witness statements are still taken in notebooks, which means the officer has to go back to office, type it all out and send it round to the relevant people,’ says Sangster. ‘With our app, they can fire it straight back to the station and get it distributed immediately. It will be more accurate, save time, and keep the officer on the beat for longer.’
Sangster admits that anyone can produce an app, but makes the point that it has to bring real value. ‘It is easy to give devices out to officers, but even if you have great applications, if all you are doing is digitising existing processes then you are missing a trick.
‘We go out with officers and do day in the life studies and see what they do and how they do it. We design the app around what actually happens, but also try to add value by improving the process. The evidence base of the savings made through these solutions is now starting to come through,’ says Sangster.
The apps are being deployed on commercial off-the-shelf devices. For foot officers it is a Windows-based PDA, but Android and BlackBerry versions are coming soon. The data is transmitted over GPRS rather than TETRA, although Sangster says rural forces, particularly vehicles, may use TETRA as a secondary or even primary bearer where the GPRS signal is poor or non-existent.
However, he warns that to gain the maximum benefit from new technology it is important that forces go the whole hog. ‘If you try and run new tech alongside the old tech, while you can make some savings in the mid and back office, you still have to support the old processes. The real savings come when you replace the old back office processes entirely,’ he argues.
Sangster says the company is starting to look at exporting the apps developed for the police into wider markets, although still largely in the public safety arena.
‘Take mobile health workers, for example,’ he says. ‘A district nurse will come round to a patient’s home with a pile of folders and papers – it should all be on a tablet. Instead the nurse has to go back to the office, type the medical notes up and pick up the pack for the next day. It is quite an antiquated way of doing things, so I think our apps will work well in that type of market too.’
He adds that the long-term aspiration is to join up the technology. ‘If you have systems all based on similar platforms you can have the police working with social services or ambulances and start doing some really clever stuff. In fact the challenge is more around persuading the different stake holders to work together,’ he observes.
Moving on to the main Airwave network, Sangster points to a number of recent developments designed to help the emergency services get more for their money. The Insight tool is one example. Users can plug into the Airwave network statistics in real-time and see exactly how their staff are using it.
‘Insight provides end users with more information on talk group usage and how officers are using the network, so it helps communications departments in fire, police and ambulance [services] change and manage operational usage to get the best efficiency out of their investment in Airwave,’ says Sangster.
It allows forces to spot behaviours such as dragging talk groups, where officers who have perhaps gone off shift are still listening in to their colleagues to keep in touch with future developments. ‘That usage drives a lot of unnecessary extra cost, so Insight helps forces impose discipline on how Airwave is used,’ explains Sangster.
Another recent launch is TETRA Messenger – a paging service with 30-odd pre-set responses that comes with a GPS facility as well. ‘If you are a retained fire officer and there is a fire in the middle of the night what traditionally happened was, say you needed 10 officers, you’d call 20 and you might get 15 responses, 12 of whom might be able to come in. But it is quite an inefficient way of doing things,’ says Sangster.
‘What our pager system does is get the message through quickly, as it is all data with no verbal communications and far more reliable than texting, where you don’t even know whether the message got through. It is a much more efficient way to manage your variable resource.’ The North West Amublance Service (NWAS) announced in March 2012 that it has signed a contract to use the service. Sangster adds that Airwave also has a programme that continually looks at whether its customers are getting bang for their buck in terms of technology.
‘We are constantly looking at our switch design technology, our base stations, our backhaul to see if we can do things at a lower price, although we have to balance attempts to be more efficient with maintaining our service level agreements,’ he says.
Sangster cites the London re-tune of the main network last year as one example of stretching scarce spectrum resource to extract more capacity. The Government wanted more capacity on the main Airwave network across London during the Olympics, as there will be many more police on duty in the capital.
‘We were asked to upgrade the network with the same amount of spectrum, so we had to find clever ways of radio planning to do that. It was used during the London riots and it stood up very well,’ he reports.
Preparing the Apollo network for the London 2012 Olympics
Airwave is also responsible for the Apollo TETRA network, which has been specially built to provide two-way radio communications for the estimated 18,000 staff involved in running the London Olympic and Paralympic Games. It is entirely separate from the main Airwave network.
A bewildering number of people will be using it, from Cadbury chocolate cart vendors, drug testers, stewards and security staff, to waste disposal workers and some of the 3,000 buses and cars in the transport fleet ferrying people around.
‘They are all very distinct talk groups that have to be managed through fleet mapping,’ says Sangster. ‘You don’t want someone from Cadbury’s listening in to the drug testing talk group. But it is not just about the practicalities of the network, it is trying to find out whether it can it cope with everyone using it at the same time in ways that are not perhaps quite what it was designed for.
‘We also have to work out how to deploy 18,000 terminals efficiently,’ he says. ‘They all have to come in at night to one of 60 RDRs (radio distribution rooms). We have to make sure that the right terminal goes to the right person with the right talk group set up, and that they are fully trained and know what they are doing,’ says Sangster.
Airwave is also carrying out in-house contingency exercises and planning to ensure its engineers can respond in a timely fashion to any emergency. It has also set up a joint action group, a collection of people from different disciplines across Airwave, who have the delegated authority to make swift decisions if something goes wrong without having to follow the usual governance procedures.
It might seem surprising that Airwave is interested in getting involved in smart energy provision, but as Sangster points out, Airwave has a nationwide network that covers 99.6% of the road system and is very resilient and secure.
‘We are quite rightly very constrained as to what the TETRA network can be used for, but the infrastructure that that it sits on, including the backhaul, has uses for other radio technologies – for example, smart energy and smart grids.’
He reveals that Airwave is currently working with a number of utility companies on smart energy trials. Airwave has also declared its interest in the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s £11bn Smart Metering Implementation Programme, where it is one of eight bidding consortia.
The scheme involves the deployment of smart meters in up to 30 million homes and businesses within the next 5-10 years.