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Ideological castles: is this the right time for ESN?

The UK Government is in the process of moving the emergency services off their dedicated Airwave TETRA communications network and onto a commercial 4G network shared with millions of consumer subscribers. Security expert Dr Dave Sloggett questions the logic of replacing Airwave at a time when the threat of terrorism and other major events, such as floods, has never seemed more imminent

Ideological castles: is this the right time for ESN?

The idea that what goes around comes around is one that we are all familiar with. Some things in life, it seems, are simple. Consequences follow actions with a high degree of certainty. It seems that despite the inevitability that one day we will reap what we sow, people still blindly carry on making the same mistakes. Hindsight, which Einstein once referred to as the perfect science, simply does not apply.

That sentiment is one that can be applied to the current ill-fated procurement process that seeks to replace the Airwave communications system employed by the emergency services. Deployed in the wake of the bombings in London on 7 July 2005, the Airwave system has for nearly 10 years provided the backbone of incident response.

When multi-agency partners are deployed to deal with the spectrum of possible events that they may have to address, Airwave provides the glue that allows resources to be deployed and engaged in saving life.

The biggest testament that can be offered to Airwave today is that people take it for granted. In its early days, as with any new system, it experienced a series of teething problems. But through sheer dint of effort they were overcome. But it took time.

Fortunately, by the time that the 2012 London Olympics was on the horizon, Airwave had become ubiquitous across the United Kingdom. When events occurred, Airwave was there to ensure the command and control of the response was coordinated and professionally delivered.

Imagine, then, the surprise in many parts of the emergency services community when the Government announced that Airwave had been dropped from the bidding process for its replacement.

Something they had taken for granted and relied upon was now being replaced with something whose reliability anyone with a mobile phone and an ounce of common sense realises is not so reliable.

Apparently, the argument goes that Airwave was a ‘gold-plated’ solution. In terms of coverage that is certainly true. Technologically, however, Airwave was becoming dated. Its leadership had allowed its capability to atrophy against the rapid emergence of a new generation of mobile services.

Airwave’s management were perhaps slow to appreciate the need for some services that are now regarded as de-rigueur in the world of command, control and communications to be added to their rapidly ageing technology.

Well, perhaps in the world of saving people’s lives the idea that the communications backbone is ‘gold-plated’ is an important consideration. Airwave’s inherent resilience and upgraded capability required to address the additional demands placed on it by the 2012 London Olympics certainly proved that having such a ‘gold-plated’ solution was useful.

It also provided the contingency when additional police officers were bussed from all over the country to deal with the riots that sparked in London in the wake of the shooting of Mark Duggan on 4 August 2011. The unleashing of a spontaneous outburst of rage by some communities that felt marginalised and on the periphery of society, was eventually brought under control, as police were deployed on the streets in quick order.

Sadly, this was not before some people died in what can be said to be tragic circumstances. Others lost their livelihoods and narrowly escaped with their lives as the chaos of the rioting unleashed known fault lines in society.

While the move to a new generation of technology makes a lot of sense, the hiatus this will inevitably create will place people’s lives at risk. Those in Government who see the replacement of Airwave in purely commercial terms need to be careful. In law, it seems, the value of a human life is placed at around £1 million.

In today’s dynamic and unpredictable security environment it does not take many lives to be lost in a single year to provide mainstream media editors with some pretty dramatic headlines.

Terrorist threat
And who is to say that 10 years on from the London bombings we are free from the possibility of another act of terrorism? One that perhaps, like the events in Paris, really tests the resilience of the response of the emergency services.

Given recent events in Paris, Istanbul, Bamako in Mali and the capital of Burkina Faso, anyone wishing to think that the UK will remain immune from similar incidents frankly needs their head examining. With all the dire warnings emerging from Government about the inevitability of an attack, it seems that it is only a question of when, not if, one occurs.

The essence of the idea of what goes around comes around is that those who start a course of action that sets in train a series of events see the consequences of their naivety writ large when several hundred people lie dead on the streets of a major city in the UK.

The prospect of such a frightening incident opening up latent fault lines in society and creating a re-run of the public order challenges faced in London five years ago cannot be lightly dismissed. There are simply too many contemporary examples of extreme Right Wing marches to routinely suggest that in the wake of a major terrorist atrocity there would be no backlash.

Other factors also lie below the surface of society. As many people have shown in protest marches, irrespective of the economic arguments, austerity is not something everyone buys into.

Against this backdrop it seems almost ludicrous that the Government has embarked on what can only be described as a spiteful campaign to remove the ‘gold-plated’ Airwave system from service.

Its replacement is to be a mobile next-generation system based on emerging standards whose service level agreements appear to be somewhat fluid and subject to debate.

Cost vs. lives
Coverage in rural areas it would seem is being sacrificed to save money. Such inequity is not a sound strategy when life has the same value irrespective of where it lives. Ideological castles built on sand are rarely a sensible solution.

Airwave’s response to the approach taken by the Government has been to protest the decision to eliminate it from the tendering process. This is perfectly understandable but ultimately pointless. It seems there are some in Government who are hell-bent on saving money without thinking through the consequences of their actions. As ever, it appears that various silos in government are not communicating with each other.

When terrorists strike at the heart of our society, and the firearms response is somewhat muted and ineffective because the coverage is not robust, someone involved in the procurement will get their comeuppance. The public enquiry that will follow will have the inevitable first conclusion. One we can easily write today.

The communications systems failed to deliver what was required and the response to this fast-moving and highly fluid situation was therefore not effective. As certain well-known QCs have their field day in court, those that have embarked upon this foolish and illogical approach will see that what has gone around has truly come around.

About the author: Dr Dave Sloggett is an independent writer and authority on security intelligence and counter terrorism

Photo: Paul Townsend

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