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Future-proofing command and control

Date: 16th May 2013
Topic: Monthly Features
Technology: Digital PMR, TETRA
Tags: APD Communications

P1010240.jpgThe Tetra landscape has been dominated recently by talk of how LTE will affect the future of critical communications. However, technological advancements are having an effect across the board, not least in the control room and contact centre.

Simon Read, business development director at APD Communications, believes things are changing fast and the traditional proprietary hardware Integrated Communications Control System (ICCS) is a thing of the past. 

“These are things that I’ve heard people say over the nine years I’ve been at APD: the ICCS is a comms system, not an IT application; it’s complicated; it needs specialist equipment; it uses proprietary hardware; it’s different from other applications; it needs replacing every 10 years; it is just in the control room; it needs its own dedicated PC. 

“Every one of those is a myth. It used to be true 10 years ago when the tenders came out initially in the UK; every one of those is now false.”

The operational perspective

Simon believes you can look at this from two perspectives: an operational and a technical perspective.

“From a user’s point of view, their job is changing”, he continues. “It’s morphing daily but also over a longer period of time it’s changed considerably and will do so increasingly with more multimedia and focus on customer service. There is more focus on public interaction than in the past, so making sure it meets the needs of the lady or the man sitting in front of the workstation, is of paramount importance.”

APD has conducted several workshops with users around the world and found flexibility is the key to keeping operators happy. People want to have a user customisable design but they still want the ability to keep a certain structure to make it easy to use. 

“Operators in the control room have different roles. Traditionally call-taker, and dispatcher, but there are many other roles – supervisors, CCTV operators, front counter staff, access control operators, multimedia monitoring. It’s important to be able to have user-interfaces that are customisable to meet these roles, not to have a rigid one-size-fits-all.”

A good example of this can be found in the control room of the Swedish Police Force. Simon explains: “They don’t have touch screens – their unions say they’re not allowed because of repetitive strain injury, believe it or not – and they have three 27-inch monitors in front of them. Their apps all run off one PC: competitor’s apps, partner’s apps, all morphed into the environment they want, specific to them. They swipe in at their desk and it animates and changes the location of their apps across their screens to their preference. 

“And that’s what the users want, that’s what they tell us – access to resources wherever and whenever. When they want to get access to a resource – whether it’s contact history, telephony, Tetra, CCTV – it’s there and it’s there immediately.”

The advent of portable tablets has also had an effect in the control room environment. This gives organisations the ability to have dispatcher level, call-taker level communications wherever it is needed. “It could be the scene of an incident, it could be home workers, it could be en route”, Simon continues. “To be able to have that capability wherever you want is increasingly important.”

The technical perspective

These changing user requirements have led to a very different set of technical requirements being requested from organisations. These include solutions that are virtualized and hosted locally or in a cloud. According to Simon, not many UK police forces are keen on hosting on servers somewhere on the other side of the world, but forces are interested in virtualizing their solutions, hosting them either on-site in a protected secure environment or collaboratively with other forces or agencies.

There are more requests for solutions that only use common IT equipment and don’t require specialist ICCS knowledge to maintain. Systems that grow, shrink and morph to meet changing demand are also popular along with solutions which pool and share Tetra with other organisations. Simon explains: “We’ve been able to pool and share Tetra for years now within the customers own organisation or collaboratively with other police forces or fire and rescue services. To be able to have the ability to remotely connect to a CCI port in the UK – or a TCS integration – with other organisations 100 miles away from you is now possible and all without any proprietary hardware – it’s a software app.”

He also suggests that systems that are bearer agnostic and future-proof are becoming vital. “You know that when LTE comes in or if Airwave changes to use another supplier’s Tetra infrastructure, you can change the low-level driver on the app and replace it with the driver for say Cassidian and it will work in the same way it worked before. It’s not changing the whole system.”

A solution that maintains access and control of critical communications, even when servers and IP networks fail, is crucial. Simon suggests that there has been a more willing acceptance of risk in the UK because of cost saving measures. 

“Compare it to how things were 10 years ago, then yes, you have to take that view. Look at the architecture then of ICCS systems and say I want it cheaper, I’ll not have a fallback control room, I’ll not have a standby system. Nowadays you don’t need to make these tough decisions – you can still have that level of resilience without having to make that decision to reduce costs because it costs the same with a distributed software ICCS rather than the proprietary centralised ICCS with a traditional hub-and-spoke architecture.”

Changing traditional thinking

The traditional ICCS involves a central hub, which includes proprietary items in it. This hub typically mixes, routes and feeds the different audio sources to the workstations that you’ve got in your control room or at mobile locations.

Simon argues that this technology mirrors a lot of the technology found in the telephony switch that most large organisations have already invested heavily in.

“Professional telephony solutions have ACD [automatic call distribution], impressive failover systems, management information, and statistical analysis. They have all this capability so why attempt to duplicate and replicate some of that functionality by having a telephony switch that, for all intents and purposes, is inside a traditional ICCS. Why not leverage the capability you’ve already invested in? You don’t have to pay twice and have no added complications.” 

He describes a more flexible alternative available nowadays to this traditional ICCS – a software distributed peer-to-peer (P2P) architecture.

“It’s a thick client. The Tetra and the telephony terminate where possible at the client end, and that client then advertises this connection to other users, other clients, anywhere on the network. And that network can be a WAN, it could be over 3G or satellite, it could be anywhere where you’ve got VPN accessibility to be able to get on to that network and you’ve got enough bandwidth – which isn’t high: for Tetra and telephony we’re talking only 160 kbit/s. If you add CCTV streaming then obviously it ramps up. But within a control room environment, to be able to have Tetra terminated at the workstation – that workstation can be used, but also it advertises its connection for other users via P2P communications.”

He explains that this removes the need for any centralized ‘ICCS switch’, and the need for centralized proprietary hardware disappears because the intelligence is in the client software.

The critical communications connect to the client, and they convert and mix locally, using software to advertise their communications; it’s a virtual connection.

“You don’t care where it’s come from. Even in neighbouring forces, you just advertise and if you’ve got connections to them you can access their CCI ports. You’d agree which ones and you’d put limitations on them and you can have a pool within a pool – that’s all configurable by the customer.

“It’s inherently resilient because there’s no single point of failure. If the workstation dies, that workstation dies and worst case another one might lose its pooled Tetra connection momentarily. Big deal – Tetra lost, it can automatically connect to another port.”

One of the key benefits to this way of doing things is that the system will not need an expensive overhaul every 10 years. “It’s software”, Simon concludes. “You pay your maintenance and it gets updated once or twice a year and as long as you update the software, your system grows with you – it doesn’t become ten years old.”

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