Skip to main content

Interoperability: ensuring joined-up communication

By [email protected] - 28th October 2007 - 12:47

Dave Rogers, Airwaveâs fleetmapping consultant& interoperability adviser, discusses the potential benefits of communication between Britainâs emergency and council services.
For central and provincial governments alike, the ability to communicate has always been vital for the dissemination and enforcement of power. Without his whistle, the âbobby peelerâ was an individual, effectively helpless in the face of even moderately concerted resistance. The whistle elevated the policeman to become part of a much larger whole and criminals knew that once it had sounded, any numerical advantage would soon come to an end. In short, it is the ability to communicate effectively that allows modern, social institutions to function as a cohesive unit. The 21st century offers more complex problems for communications to overcome. Now is the age of accountability, where all social institutions are held under the constant spotlight of the media. If utilities are not repaired immediately, roads not cleared of snow or emergency services response times not reduced, then the leaders and opinion columns of the âfourth estateâ demand to know why. An essential element to ensure all governmental services run effectively and economically is the ability to communicate, and it is through an intelligent, joined-up approach to communication that the nationâs services will be able to function most effectively. It is becoming increasingly clear that effective communication services that enable interoperability hold the key to how this can be achieved.Today Great Britain has one of the worldâs largest and most advanced communications service for public safety organisations. Airwave (formally O2 Airwave) rolled out its TETRA radio network in just five years â despite delays caused by the foot and mouth epidemic in 2001 â and by so doing created a robust and secure communications platform for the entire public safety community in Great Britain. The service has proved highly successful, providing greater coverage and security than was possible at any time previously. In 2007, with the announcement of the Welsh Ambulance contract, Airwave could state that all of the Britainâs âblue-lightâ services were, for the first time, united by a common secure communications infrastructure. This was a highly important announcement. For the first time in history, the possibility of complete, instantaneous and secure communications between the countryâs emergency services became a reality.THE AIRWAVE NETWORK ENABLES INTEROPERABILITYThe Airwave network is configured through âfleetmappingâ. A Fleetmap is a database, which defines the functions, features and communication configurations of the Airwave service to meet a customerâs business and user needs. It translates the customerâs organisational structure, policies & strategies, command and control structure, working practices and user needs into a set of configurable parameters contained within the Airwave network, radio terminal and Integrated Communications Control Systems (ICCS).This process involves analysing the operational needs of users (in this case, public safety organisations in Britain) and converting them into operational procedures configured on the network infrastructure. The most common type of interoperability is the establishment and exchange of âtalkgroupsâ. To the end user, a talkgroup closely resembles the radio channels used by earlier radio systems and allows users operating on a shared talkgroup to hear transmissions as an âall-informedâ group. BARRIERS TO TAKE-UPAs with all technology, however, just because something is possible, it does not automatically follow that it will be used. Video conferencing, for example, is a perfectly good solution to providing face-to-face communications between remote locations, yet the technology has still not yet reached any sort of critical mass. The barriers to its success are arguably cultural, and similar considerations can be seen reflected in the case of interoperability.Interoperability may, it seems, have everything going in its favour. The ability for Britainâs public safety organisations to be able to communicate directly with each other during a major incident would seem to be a highly desirable thing, so the question needs to be asked: Why do Britainâs public safety services not yet fully interoperate with each other? The answer to this is multi-faceted. The first consideration is entirely practical. Many in the emergency services may be wondering why radio interoperability is needed at all, when the vast majority of operational communications between them are conducted face-to-face at the scene of incidents. In fact, interoperability can add a great deal of value to communications between mobile officers from different organisations, either on the ground or in the air, whenever circumstances prevent the communication of timely information. This can be invaluable in helping to prevent loss of life, injury or damage that may otherwise occur. Take, as an example, large incidents (such as a major disaster) or events (such as a major political summit). During such occasions, the ability to be able to interoperate with all officers across a large geographical space is essential. In the case of a flood, for example, an air unit may spot some people in danger of being swept away by the waters. If they must travel to alert the ground forces to their location, vital minutes could be lost, endangering public safety. With the necessary Command and Control structure in place, interoperable communications allows them to radio the relevant teams directly to ensure a rapid response.Additionally, by being able to interoperate, public safety organisations have the opportunity to work together in any way they want. This would be of benefit in that valuable relationships could be formed with agencies that have never before communicated via a radio network. For this to be successful, however, significant cultural barriers will need to be overcome. The sharing of information, for example, is not always considered a given by some organisations due to differences in working practices. This is quite understandable. An organisation may not understand that differences in procedural culture do not always translate into differences in the handling and communication of information. If Great Britain is to fully meet its Civil Contingency responsibilities, this is a mindset that should be changed. The free and timely sharing of information of mutual benefit to all public safety organisations can only be a good thing, and is fully enabled through interoperable radio communications. INTEROPERABILITY TODAYThe true benefits of interoperability can best be demonstrated through real-world examples. At present there are a number of projects cross Great Britain that use some aspect of interoperability. The brief outline of some of these below indicate the range of possibilities the technology opens for more efficient, co-ordinated communications and strengthens the case for a wider deployment of interoperable radio networks.The Highlands Council in Scotland signed up to Airwave in response to an Ofcom mandate to switch off the analogue radio frequency as part of a nationwide digital switchover initiative. In addition to the enhanced levels of security, greater coverage and higher quality afforded by the Airwave system, the Highlands Council found the greatest benefit of the network to be the ability to enable direct interoperability with other emergency and public safety organisations. Until recently, interoperability between the Highlands Council and the emergency services has been limited, with communications only achieved by placing a Highlands Council radio within each of the regionâs Police control rooms. While this enabled activities to be co-ordinated, it lacked the level of sophistication and speed of communication that the Airwave service enables.The ability to communicate effectively is essential to the Highlands Council due to the extreme weather conditions experienced in that part of the United Kingdom. Storms can obliterate entire roads, cutting off communities. Ralph Williscroft from the Highlands Council summed up the challenge: âSuch scenarios require rapid response by the emergency services, not just to respond to the emergency itself but also to maintain the day-to-day operations of the three blue light services. As such, there is a requirement for close collaboration between the emergency services and our road maintenance teams whose job it is to grit the regionâs roads during the winter as well as repairing and maintaining them through the rest of the year. To achieve this in an area as vast as that covered by the Highlands Council means that effective and robust communication has always been a critical requirement.â By equipping the road maintenance teams with Airwave handsets, direct communication with the police is now possible, removing the necessity to communicate via the control rooms. Furthermore, when the Ambulance and Fire & Rescue services go live on the Airwave service in the near future, all three blue light services and the Highlands Council will be able to directly interact to more effectively manage emergencies or disasters. Ralph Williscroft commented: âIt is predicted that interoperability will provide benefits to all parties. It will allow the Highlands Council Road Maintenance department to more effectively support the emergency services to gain access to remote areas during extreme weather conditions. Conversely, the road maintenance teams will be able to act as an extension to the eyes and ears of the police. In a region as large as that covered by the Highlands Council this is an important advantage.âThe Port of Dover Police is an independent, privately funded police force, charged with policing the worldâs busiest passenger port. Port of Dover Policeâs Chief Officer, Chief Superintendent Steve Masters, provided some insight into the nature of their work: âWhilst the majority of our business is conducted within the port our officers can travel across Britain, either when collecting prisoners or assisting Kent Police with mutual aid. To be able to do this effectively, our communications network needs to be robust and secure as well as fully interoperable with those of our partner agencies. Airwave is the ideal solution for this, and the improved quality of calls, both in reception and range has been marked.âPrior to Airwave, Port of Dover Police relied on three radio networks â 2 UHF networks (one for operations in the port and another to talk to Kent Police) and a VHF network for longer-range (vehicle mounted) communications. Steve Masters commented: âThe older radios were not only much poorer quality, but the coverage was patchy and the functionality was limited. With the Airwave network, both long- and short-range calls can be made from the same handset, instantly and to anyone on the talkgroup and to anywhere in Britain with confidence that they will be heard.âFor the Port of Dover Police the benefits have only just started as they look forward to being able to increase their ability to communicate with other enforcement partners as they come on stream and also be able to deliver to the officer on the ground the ability to access data, which was only previously available via control room operators.In moving to a centralised location, Kent Police was also scheduled to undertake its radio migration to a central location. The Airwave network is being used to provide interoperability between the local authorityâs CCTV team and the police force. The CCTV control rooms effectively become the local arm of the centralised police control teams. In real-time, CCTV operators can focus a camera on an area with criminal activity, providing vital evidence for any charges the police may want to bring, as well as serving as protection for the officers involved. Using the Airwave network, the CCTV teams are not restricted to communicating with the Police control centre; they can also talk directly with the patrols out on the streets. In Shepway recently, the CCTV team witnessed two youths committing a robbery at knifepoint, and then making their escape. Police at the scene only received limited descriptions from eyewitnesses, but the CCTV controller had been able to follow one of the offenders with the cameras, and direct the police units to the suspect. Once the arrest was made, the CCTV team was able to direct the officers back to the point where the cameras had captured the offender discard the weapon over a fence â retrieving vital evidence. All of this was made possible by the fast communication between teams operating on the same talk group, using the same radio system.THE FUTURE OF INTEROPERABILITYThe ongoing remit of all public safety agencies is to provide the citizens of Great Britain with the highest levels of service to ensure safety and ultimately to save lives. This is particularly difficult in the modern world where factors such as the threat of terrorism and unstable weather conditions (to name but two) make it increasingly difficult to know when the next big disaster may strike. All of Britainâs emergency services are now signed up to Airwave, providing the chance to have a fully joined-up approach to communications. With the necessary safeguards in place, Incident Commanders operating at Tactical or Operational Command are now able to speak directly to their opposite number in the other blue light services and communicate with those public safety organisations that support the emergency services, removing the need to relay messages through third parties with the associated threats of miscommunication and security breaches. The case for interoperability has been made, but if it is to break through the cultural barriers that may hinder uptake, serious work needs to be done to change the culture of the organisation by educating end users, and demonstrating the real-world benefits of the technology. The Airwave service replaced outdated and inflexible methods of communication that limited working practices for decades. With Airwave, the opportunity is there for public safety organisations to define and agree new ways of working to the benefit of staff, their employers and the safety of the general public. Dave Rogers is a member of the Police National Interoperability Working Group and sits on the Emergency & Public Safety Interoperability Programme Board

Author: Dave Rogers Airwave's fleetmapping consultant

Bio.: & interoperability adviser

Subscribe to our newsletter

Stay updated on the latest technology, innovation product arrivals and exciting offers to your inbox.