The future shape of emergency service communications

Euros Evans, CTO of Airwave Solutions, which operates the UK’s TETRA radio network for the emergency services, outlines his vision of what next generation emergency service communications might look like to Wireless editor James Atkinson

The future shape of emergency service communications

‘I know it states the blindingly obvious,’ says Euros Evans, CTO, Airwave Solutions, ‘but when it comes to deciding on next generation networks we have to be clear on the user requirements. That is paramount, as it is one of the key things that will dictate the shape of the future.’

Evans feels the user requirements for mission critical voice are well established now, but it is proving much more difficult to predict what data applications will be mission critical. ‘The challenge is understanding how data will change user business processes over the longer term,’ he says.

There is a vicious circle according to Evans. The big bandwidth does not exist today because the applications do not exist to create the demand for it. The apps don’t exist because the business case does not exist; and the business case does not exist because the bandwidth doesn’t exist.

‘Ask public safety people why they want broadband and the answer tends to be video,’ observes Evans. ‘Ask them why they want video and the answers tend to vary. It is not that anybody is right or wrong, it’s just that it is very difficult to predict these things.’ 

Evans reports that Airwave is trying to break the vicious circle for the customer by developing a range of apps to see what works and what appeals to public safety professionals.


Bandwidth aggregation

Airwave’s most innovative application involves bundling or aggregating together bandwidth from UK public mobile operators into Surrey Police vehicles to provide access to live video streaming using 3G and potentially 4G when it is more widely available.

Evans explains that public mobile operators have designed asymmetric networks in that most of the bandwidth is made available for the downlink. Most consumers send small data requests on the uplink and receive tonnes of information via the downlink.

But public safety professionals, especially if they are trying to send video back to command and control centres, want more capacity on the uplink. Normally, a camera mounted on a police vehicle would have to be taken back to base and uploaded there to pass on the video.

What Airwave’s bundling software does is allow them to stream video directly from the vehicle in real time. The other advantage is that as it bundles channels from different operators, if one drops out, the session will continue seamlessly on the other channels without dropping the transmission.

‘The speed varies,’ says Evans, ‘and one trick is how you modify the quality of the video depending on the speed available by slowing frame rates down or making it a bit fuzzier. That enhances the control room’s ability to determine whether to continue a pursuit, for example.’

In trials with Surrey Police, when police vehicles ‘boxed in’ a vehicle to make it stop, the video is sufficiently high resolution for command and control to identify the officers who got out of their cars to approach the stopped vehicle.


Mobile hotspots

The Fire Service might use video to send images of a large fire to engines on either side of it to show how it looks from their side. The Ambulance Service might use it to send ultrasound scans back to the hospital.

‘If you fall and sprain your ankle, why not do an ultrasound scan in the ambulance? asks Evans. ‘If it doesn’t merit going to hospital, the ambulance could then book you an appointment to see the doctor or district nurse will come and see you and fix you up.

‘That could all be arranged dynamically at the scene, as the ambulance is a mobile hotspot. You can do a lot of things with that. Staff can walk out of vehicle with smartphone or tablet and use the vehicle’s Wi-Fi and great antennas.’

Evans’s hope is that by putting this kind of application out there the public safety community can start to explore the benefits. ‘What we are really trying to do is break that vicious circle and help public safety understand which applications are really mission critical in the future in advance of the arrival of public safety LTE,’ he says.

‘When that bandwidth is finally there you want to be able to capitalise on it from the word go. What you don’t want to do is spend ages exploring which things are mission critical and which are not. If you can identify that in advance you can realise the benefits of going to mission critical data much sooner. I think this is critical,’ argues Evans.


Location based apps

Airwave is working with its subsidiary Kelvin Connect on a number of other applications, including location based information – the kind of thing that is now common in command and control centres, but which is generally not available to those in the field.

If emergency services in the field can see where their colleagues are on a screen and by just touching the icon communicate directly with them, that would be of enormous benefit. If neighbouring police forces are brought into London, but are not familiar with the geography, having a device that shows they where they are in relation to colleagues will enable them to respond faster and more effectively if they are called upon to assist.

At the London Marathon, the Ambulance Service puts vehicles and treatment centres along the way. If a paramedic needs to take someone to a treatment centre, he could look at his device and not only see where the treatment centres are, but also how busy they are. It might be better to take the person a bit further, but to a less busy treatment centre – that helps workflow management.

‘If we look at these things now before they are heavily deployed we have a better chance of finding the answers for what data applications are essential in advance,’ says Evans.

‘Different customers will have different needs for data and what they want to do with it will be very different,’ he continues. ‘For example, if you are based in London a lot of the data you’d want would be intelligence, decent resolution images and so on.

‘But if you are in a rural area with less rich data services available, what you really want is continuity of data. You need to be able to jump between bearers in the middle of rural Wales. You make the best of what you have available there. But we must be careful that the applications we provide add value and are not a distraction,’ warns Evans. ‘We need to find the basic apps that makes the difference to the most people.’


Spectrum requirements

When it comes to next generation mission critical bearers, Evans is convinced that the public safety community needs 2x10MHz of dedicated spectrum for broadband services.

‘I remain hopeful that the EU will make 700MHz spectrum available,’ he says. ‘The more tricky question is: will it be 2x5MHz, 2x10MHz or 2x20MHz? I really hope it is 2x10MHz. We really do need that – if you identify what is mission critical and apply intelligence at the device end then you can start to manage within it.’

He believes the UK emergency services should be able to keep their existing 400MHz spectrum. It’s about keeping costs down,’ he says. ‘400MHz is very useful in rural areas as it propagates further, but that band is fragmented across Europe and even in the UK we don’t have a contiguous 2x5MHz block, so we’d have to refarm.’

He foresees a hybrid network situation developing. ‘You will always have a hybrid – think about the payloads. What is the cheapest, most cost effective way to move this intelligence from here to there?

‘It is hybrid in the sense of like you have in the United States where you have private networks in parts of the geography and rely on commercial ones elsewhere; or you have private networks everywhere, but you will chose by payload which one you use. Wi-Fi can also be used – there is lots of it and it is often free,’ points out Evans.

What bearer you use will be determined by how mission critical your need is. Evans identifies three flavours:

  • Mission critical: someone holding a knife to your throat, firearms incident, riot, bad traffic accident etc
  • Business critical: sending ANPR (automatic number plate recognition) for certain events
  • The Rest: speeding tickets, stop and search forms etc

But he warns: ‘Both users and applications can change their status on that paradigm. A traffic warden is not mission critical, until he happens to be the guy outside the bank that is getting robbed – that changes his status as he is your eye witness at the scene.

‘You might decide ANPR is not mission critical, but if there is a bank robbery then it might become mission critical if it identifies the getaway car number plate. If someone takes a picture of the guy who has the gun – that photo becomes mission critical. This is what we are working on,’ he says.

There is a long way to go before broadband networks are available as a normal everyday solution for the emergency services, but clearly there is a lot that can be done now to prepare the way.

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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