In all the excitement of new applications and devices, and the arrival of LTE, it’s easy to forget that reliable voice is the critical communications method for many first responders.
Getting carried away with what can be achieved with the use of video and tablets isn’t relevant to workers on the front line as Ian Readhead, director of information at the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), explains: ‘First is the prioritisation of the critical commuWnications infrastructures that frontline operators need. There are sustained voice requirements that are likely to still be provided in the foreseeable future by a digital trunked radio system.
‘People sometimes forget how critical it is. We forget that provides us with a secure network with superb clarity of voice and excellent coverage. If you use that effectively, you can achieve that infrastructure at a not unreasonable cost.’
That resilience and security are also wireless communications challenges that Bob Mearns, resilience manager, East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust, identifies.
‘Reliability and security [are core requirements],’ he says. ‘[Users are] frequently unable to gain wireless connection depending on their location and there are concerns about the security of mail sent being either lost or intercepted. There are always concerns with this type of technology that it may somehow get into the public domain,’ says Mearns.
In health-related services, such as ambulance services, that’s an obvious potential failing in terms of patient confidentiality, but other services also see security issues. Those are likely to become heightened as emergency services turn to commercial bearers to transmit their data.
‘A significant challenge is in how you make commercial bearers secure,’ says David Webb, chief fire and rescue officer of Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service and lead for OPs Comms at the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA). ‘The idea of having a bespoke, almost private network for emergency services is becoming less viable, so we’ll be looking to use more of the commercial networks.’
However, the arrival of LTE provides a specific and immediate challenge that Webb’s members need to overcome. ‘The rollout of 4G technology will cause issues for us because it uses a frequency that is very close to what we already use for Wi-Fi-based telemetry within fire service breathing apparatus,’ he says. ‘Around 50% of services currently use this telemetry system to keep the information flowing from the apparatus to the incident control board, so the first priority is to move the Wi-Fi telemetry spectrum away from 4G so it’s not conflicted.’
Cost continues to be a limiting factor in terms of what technologies emergency services can deploy. ‘The issue is, of course, cost [of the trunked radio service] and there will undoubtedly be an engagement with the current provider to see what can be done,’ adds Readhead. ‘Hampshire Police, for example, has reduced its overall cost by using codes embedded in TETRA.’
Mearns sees pressure both in terms of generating cost savings and operational efficiencies. ‘Health organisations have to make cost savings like everyone else so cost is an issue,’ he adds. ‘As we are a mobile agency, the benefits of wireless from an operational point of view are invaluable in that we can set up anywhere and function.’
That value is also apparent to police forces. ‘Mobile functionality and capability creates opportunities for police officers – as well as fire and ambulance services – to get the right information to make informed decisions,’ says Readhead. ‘As we build national applications such as the police national database, being able to deliver images and data on previous convictions is absolutely essential for police officers to fulfil their jobs.’
Webb says fire services are already more focused on data than voice communications and welcomes the functionality 4G will deliver. ‘We will become users of 4G and realise that we will be beneficiaries of it,’ he says. ‘Hopefully it will reduce costs as well, but we will have to be cautious that we don’t become driven by the technology and avoid getting bogged down in the proliferation of devices. Overall, though, we see it as a positive.’
‘Voice is perhaps more important to other emergency services, especially the police,’ adds Webb. ‘For us the ability to transmit large amounts of data is key. For instance, if we want detailed plans of a building, we need the ability to transmit that reliably and quickly from our control centres to the incident.’
As greater bandwidth arrives with LTE and better devices such as tablets become available, emergency service organisations are examining closely how the technology can be harnessed and deployed to the benefit of their mobile workers.
‘There seems to be little debate that LTE is the technology of choice for mobile broadband – with the cautionary note that significant work remains with the 3GPP standardisation body to ensure that public safety – and LMR in general – requirements are enshrined within the standard,’ says Duncan Swan, a partner at consulting firm Mason.
‘To this end, we are currently at the point where the global public safety community has the opportunity to ensure that there will be one technology, that operates in harmonised frequency bands, being developed to meet their needs. [We’re at a] crossroads that has the potential to drive up functionality and application development and drive down price through a truly open standards approach.’
Mearns sees benefits coming from new technologies: ‘They will improve productivity,’ he confirms. ‘We are currently changing from paper patient report forms to electronic tablets, which will speed up delivery of information and reduce the amount of storage. We need to move with the times and anything that will assist the ambulance crews and speed up their responses can only be seen as a benefit.’
Readhead agrees: ‘How much do you actually want a highly paid police officer to be doing in relation to reports?’ he asks. ‘Are we maximising reporting efficiency by enabling reports to be voice-based or are we looking at officers typing up a two-page statement with two fingers. Mobile provides a great way forward because it means that operatives can conclude their work in the field in what I call ‘slow time’. The mobile environment enables you to do all of that.’
Nevertheless, Swan thinks emergency services are still approaching the challenges of greater mobility from a traditional mindset. ‘The challenge – and opportunity alike – for public safety bodies in the UK is to stop determining future requirements from current experience and to start to look into the future and understand how applications such as social media will shape the way that our emergency services interact with the communities they serve,’ he says.
‘That, along with video transmission, is how mobile broadband will enhance situational awareness and enable more effective and efficient operational practices,’ says Swann.
Readhead disagrees and thinks emergency services are ready to make bold moves. ‘When I started my police career, I was still going to phone boxes to call the sergeant. Technology will evolve and meet the ambitious requirements of emergency services – and I think we should be ambitious.’
Equipment vendor view: Kenneth Hubner, sales director, Sepura
‘Many countries in Europe are affected by the recession, but contrary to other difficult times it has not put a full stop on investment in public safety. Yes, customers want more bang for their bucks, so they are after access to data and new applications that save time and money, especially if it enables them to reduce the number of back office people. We are not seeing a big demand for video yet though – but images, yes.
‘The driver for change is that public safety providers need to be more agile to get better returns on their investment, so they are more open to using more devices and applications than perhaps they were before.
‘We have a number of applications in use at the moment. For example, our ‘Stop and Account’ application: if a policeman stops someone in the street they must record certain information and ask them to account for their presence in that area. Information such as ethnicity, time and location must be recorded. Information is recorded at the time, rather than later in the office, which makes it more accurate, and it is sent into the system, which cuts down on back office time and costs.
‘Another application allows you to screen people entering a specific building to see if they are on a blacklist. You can download information, including photographs, from a database and use it to compare people entering the building. This can be done on TETRA terminals.
‘One more application is geofencing. When an officer is inside a building where the GPS signal is poor, command and control can lose sight of him. But we have developed an application whereby the radio informs the command and control centre that it has lost the radio signal, but that the officer is inside the building.
‘We are also seeing a revival of an older software feature in the shape of TETRA gateways to enhance coverage in locations where it does not make sense to invest in new base stations. The software turns the terminal into a TETRA gateway to enhance indoor coverage in particular.
‘Another area is better integration of TETRA systems with conventional telephony systems for messaging. If a policeman meets a member of the public to ask for information and the latter remembers some detail later on, they used to be given a piece of paper with a contact number. But it might be hard to track the officer down if he has gone off duty.
‘But now, once the new information is given to headquarters, the messaging integration system can auto-connect to the officer via his TETRA radio, which saves time. It makes the officer more traceable and offers a better and more reassuring service to the public.
‘Sepura is also launching a new version of its Radio Manager programming and management tool (first announced in May 2011). It will provide better integration and an easier fleet mapping capability. It is providing some amazing cost savings for the Devon and Cornwall Police, so the ROI case is compelling. The remote over-the-air programming is making it much easier for fleet managers to ensure all the radios have the latest software and parameters.
‘Despite the current economic difficulties in the UK and other European countries, many of them still have secure communications high on their agenda. Public safety radio communications is definitely quite a healthy market with some large user groups coming through in Europe and elsewhere.’
Equipment vendor view: Tom Quirke, VP and general manager, global TETRA product & solutions organisation, Motorola Solutions
‘Public safety is quite unusual in regards to how the spending goes up and down: it often doesn’t reflect the current economic situation. There is a lot of pre-planning in public safety, so you might have terminal replacements scheduled every five years and that will happen come what may.
‘Spending is under pressure, but looking at public safety and communications in general, if you don’t have the communications you won’t get a viable public safety sector. That said, spending does wax and wane to some extent depending on events.
‘But for first responders it still comes down to the basics. They rely on the lifeline of the radio. This may or may not be more important this year, as we wait to see if public safety agencies entertain the idea of more lone officers. If so, the radio becomes even more important as the officer will have no back up from another officer. It remains the essential lifeline, because of push-to-talk and the ability to switch to direct mode when there is no coverage.
‘If you have more lone officer patrols then coverage also becomes even more important. Will you get the necessary coverage down a dark alley? We have to respond by increasing radio sensitivity so it picks up weaker signals, for example. We provide significantly more coverage range just by improving the radio.
‘Then there are connections over-the-air. We have improved the audio and the radio response to cope with noisy environments. The audio quality is as fundamental as it has ever been and it has to be packaged in a rugged device that is easy to use. You have to be able to hit the push-to-talk or emergency button without difficulty, so it must be highly tactile, easy to use and easy to mount. We look at the ergonomics of the terminals all the time and make sure the user interfaces are fast and quick to use.
‘Reliability is also increasing. Organisations are looking to pool radios as a way of saving money. But that changes user behaviour in terms of how the terminals are treated and handled. If it is not your personal radio you may not treat it with as much care as you would if it is your own. That’s just human nature – so they have to stand up to less careful treatment and any agency considering pooling has to do rigorous ruggedness tests.
‘We have been working to understand the real costs of running a network, like the UK’s Airwave system, 24/7 and how we can help drive down power costs, backhauling transmission, installation times and so on.
‘Some customers are asking about LTE and want a good route to that if they buy a TETRA network. We have set up a virtualised core (on a virtualised server farm we run) so it is somewhat LTE ready. We are trying to give customers as many options as possible, such as this technology, which is built with split points on for future standards adoption.
‘Are attitudes to data changing? People are asking if it is mission-critical. I think this may change as they use it more. We may hit a trigger point where the loss of a data application causes a problem and people realise they were more dependent on it then they thought. As far as video is concerned, we may then need a private network, which all leads to securing more spectrum. We need to think about how it might evolve.
‘The public safety sector is vibrant and dynamic. The TETRA community owns it and shapes its direction. They have a very large input in terms of standards and evolution.’