Airwave, the provider of critical communications for public service organisations in Great Britain, has come up with a solution to help the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) in Kyle of Lochalsh to overcome communications problems caused by the mountainous terrain in that part of Scotland.
Alex Marshall, RNLI Operations Communications & Information Manager, explained: ‘This RNLI lifeboat station is one of the youngest in Scotland and provides lifeboat cover as far as Raasay, Mallaig, Portree and Applecross. The area is surrounded by sea lochs and steep mountains, making two-way communication a challenge for the activities of the RNLI.’
According to Martin Benké, Airwave’s UK Network Services Director: ‘The RNLI uses a non-secure VHF analogue radio system to communicate between the lifeboat station and the lifeboat. This radio system is perfectly suitable for line-of-sight and point-to-point communications, but their location made for a difficult situation.’
‘The harsh terrain in the area means that we experience gaps in communication and in certain areas our crews have had to resort to using mobile phones. However, when we go into areas such as Loch Alsh, Loch Long and Loch Duich, the lifeboat loses all forms of communications. This is particularly treacherous as not only does the lifeboat station lose contact with the lifeboat, but the lifeboat also has no way of communicating with the Coastguard,’ added Marshall.
Over the last few years the area has become a popular destination for leisure yachting, which has increased the number of visitors to the area and the associated demand on the emergency services. As a result of this the RNLI and Airwave convened a meeting to discuss whether a suitable solution could be found using the Airwave Network.
‘We currently use the Network on the Thames to communicate with the Coastguard and interoperate with the other blue light services that operate on the river. However, further afield we make exclusive use of the Maritime VHF system. In other areas where communications have also been poor, we have put in repeaters. However, they cannot always solve the issue due to the surrounding terrain,’ said Marshall.
‘In finding a solution, the most important aspect was to investigate whether the Cabinet Office would allow us to connect the RNLI to the secure Airwave Network through their existing VHF system,’ added Benké.
Working with the NPIA security panel it was agreed that a back to back system into the Airwave Network would be best as this would enable translation of the frequency between the Airwave system and the VHF radio.
The solution involved installing an Airwave terminal in the lifeboat station at the Kyle of Lochalsh, which converts Airwave calls into VHF transmissions, and vice versa (in reverse). Marshall designed the interface unit, which was manufactured by PMR Products and once all the equipment had undergone a trial, the kit was installed at the lifeboat station and in the Atlantic 85 lifeboat.
‘The crew use the network through the intercom system on the lifeboat and the concept of operation is that when they enter areas where communication via the Airwave Network is required, they simply flick a switch to go to the Airwave radio – a new talk group has been set up specifically for this situation, concluded Marshall.