European-wide communications interoperability for emergency responders

Project FREESIC is an EU FP7-funded project, designed to provide emergency responders across Europe with a platform that makes communications interoperability between them easy, secure and cost effective, as programme manager Stefan Vanya explains

European-wide communications interoperability for emergency responders

Emergency responder agencies in Europe are facing challenges of ever increasing levels of complexity. Major incidents tend to require co-operation between many different agencies and their command and control centres, which has exacerbated interoperability issues both within and between responders.
Clearly there is a need to promote more effective intra and inter agency interoperability. However, in Europe these agencies are facing budgetary limitations inhibiting the implementation of one-purpose solutions, which tend to be very expensive.
Recognising this, the EU’s FP7 programme set up Project FREESIC (Free Secure Interoperability Communications) in 2012. It is tasked with finding a highly secure and cost-effective interoperability solution between existing communication infrastructures used by emergency responders across the whole of Europe.

Operational barriers
The project was inspired by the legal, organisational and operational barriers FP7 programme consortia have encountered during previous activities, including project SECRICOM.
These barriers relate more to the business and culture of end-user organisations rather than technical difficulties. FREESIC’s objective is to provide true EU-wide interoperability by overcoming the following issues:
• Differing doctrines between agencies and countries
• Significant budgetary pressures for emergency responder agencies
• Optimisation of existing investments
• Multiple systems deployed EU wide
• Trust and security concerns
• Classified information
• International agreements and legal limitations
• Business – long term contracts.
Two other key criteria were identified at the start of the project. First, the interoperability platform that interconnects emergency service communications systems must use the same level of security assurance or higher otherwise it will create vulnerabilities.
It was also noted that the interfaces to emergency service communication systems are often classified, so there are legal, intellectual property rights and contractual issues that limit interoperability, which also have to be dealt with.
The second key point is that the solution has to be cost effective, so existing systems can be integrated into the interoperability platform. It also needs to be based on EU standards and standard protocols, so that the time and effort needed to integrate is minimal. The motivation for system integrators to adopt the solution comes from the range of new services they will be able to provide to their users.

The FREESIC gateway
The interoperability solution identified is based on a universal gateway with customisable adapters, which enables third party communication infrastructures to be connected to something called the FREESIC Unified Communication Network.
From the user perspective, network management tasks will be facilitated through the Collaboration Site based on Web 2.0 components (see below), which allows end-users to configure their own interoperability attributes.
First responder organisations connected to FREESIC will have the ability to exchange required information with partner agencies regardless of state-borders via the FREESIC Gateway. This will be made available to them with full specification upon acceptance of the FREESIC terms and conditions described in the FREESIC Multilateral Agreement.  
Agencies can ask their system integrators to develop an adapter to the FREESIC Gateway, which connects their own communication system with the FREESIC platform. Thus, each inter-operating agency needs to only develop one adapter to achieve multilateral interoperability with other agencies when using the FREESIC solution.
The specification of the FREESIC gateway will be provided as shared Java source code with sample implementations, as well as additional tools enhancing the configuration of adapters connecting to the FREESIC platform. Thus, any kind of communication system can be easily integrated with only a minor investment cost.
It is important to note that the system integrators do not need to share any of their own assets, specifications or source codes, which they consider to be business sensitive information or their own intellectual property.

The FREESIC collaboration web
The FREESIC collaboration web ensures that the operation of the interoperability platform is performed in a decentralised way (Web 2.0 principles) according to clear interoperability rules, which will enable organisations’ communication systems to interconnect.
The configuration of operational interoperability parameters (talk groups, visibility of different resources per partner agencies, etc) will still sit with the end-user agencies themselves based upon recognised social networking rules; e.g. configuration becomes valid only upon mutual confirmation.  
Thanks to input from the end-user community during the development of the technology platform, the user interface will accommodate the end-user’s normal expectations, ways of working and vocabulary.
This means end-users can quickly become familiar with the interoperability tool without having to undergo extensive training.

Cultural and organisational barriers
Another key focus of the FREESIC project is to examine the end-user expectations, ways of working and constraints with special emphasis on non-technical barriers that first responder organisations in Europe face when they attempt to set up interoperability solutions with partner agencies (see list of barriers above).
These barriers have emerged from consultation by the FREESIC consortium with over 50 stakeholder organisations across 10 EU states. In addition, engagement with a wide range of end-users has resulted in a series of suggested proposed solutions to these cultural and organisational interoperability barriers.  
FREESIC will provide interested public safety organisations with interoperability guides, procedures and recommendations collected in one manual reflecting the knowledge gathered from potential stakeholders Europe-wide. This document will provide:
• A description of interoperability prerequisites (technical and non-technical)
• A FREESIC user guide
• Recommendations for the resolution of the most common constraints.

The FREESIC deployment
The FREESIC infrastructure consists of a set of servers, secure multimedia switching software and web management tools. The backup (load-balancing) servers around Europe will enable the system’s high availability and the meshed topology will enhance its resilience towards attacks. The system is designed with security in mind from the beginning.
The FREESIC core communication platform is based on a fully open and scalable ejabberd XMPP platform that allows end-to-end encryption of all the communications. The protection against denial-of-service cyber-attacks on the platform or the entire internet will be solved by direct over-satellite backup links.
The first interoperability between different systems will be evaluated using the testing environments of organisations, which participate directly as partners or associated partners in the FREESIC project or through their system integrators/consultants.
FREESIC is designed to address not only current, but future challenges and while it is not compulsory, emergency services would do well to consider adopting it, as it provides a capability that brings added value to the participating organisations.

Current status
FREESIC is a 30 month project, which is now moving into the demonstration and dissemination phases before the final proof of concept demonstration in Luxembourg in June 2014. A further development of the project begins in Spring 2014 (Re-DIRNET) that builds on the voice and SMS integration to include data, remote sensors, image and video. FREESIC will present its final results in 2014.

For more information visit the FREESIC web page:

Key benefits of FREESIC
• Permanent connectivity with partner organisations that regularly operate together, but have  differing communications systems
• Temporary connectivity with other FREESIC participating organisations when deemed operationally necessary  
• End-to-end connection between strategic and tactical command groups using different communication tools
• The ability to tailor needs for the specifics of an organisation and incident
• Secure communication channels.

FREESIC consortium
• Ardaco – Slovakia
• National Security Authority of Slovak Republic – Slovakia
• Université du Luxembourg – Luxembourg
• British Association of Public Safety Communication Officers (B-APCO) – UK
• ITTI – Poland
• NEXTEL – Spain
• Centre de Communications du Gouvernement – Luxembourg
• World Consult – Slovakia
• Pramacom Prague – Czech Republic

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