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UK police comms: In with the new...

Philip Mason looks at some of the public safety mobile working projects taking place ahead of the Emergency Services Network rollout

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The UK’s TETRA-based public safety digital communications system Airwave is being replaced with a new LTE-enabled solution in the shape of the burgeoning Emergency Services Network. Despite several PR setbacks – not least the 2016 National Audit Office report describing the project as “inherently high risk” – things are now progressing in the right direction. (At least if the Home Office’s ESN update presentations at this year’s BAPCO show are to be believed).

The ESN is expected to demonstrate most value in its ability to facilitate mobile working for public safety personnel. This means providing (at the very minimum) dependable push-to-talk mirroring Airwave, but also the ability to share video footage, use cloud and app-based services, and access the internet.

While still months away from anything approaching full functionality, the ESN offers the tantalising prospect of both financial savings and improved real-time situational awareness. There are UK public safety organisations already taking advantage of 4G, however, contracting MNOs and device manufacturers to prepare their people for the coming technology revolution.

Personal responsibility
Greater Manchester Police is one of several forces currently rolling out smart devices to its officers as part of an organisation-wide mobile working project. However, it is unique in its ambition to use the technology to change not just operational practice but its entire culture as well.

Phil Davies is the superintendent in charge of the initiative. Giving an overview of force requirements and what it wanted to achieve when GMP began the project, he said: “The whole idea was to allow our officers to be more visible in the community, making them in a sense self-sufficient so they don’t have to come back to the station.

“The knock-on effect of that is that we don’t go through anywhere near as much paper now, which has also helped to achieve efficiencies. An immense part of the job has always been to do with paperwork, certainly for as long as I’ve known.”

He continues: “To succeed in the project we needed officers to be fully on board with the devices, something we’ve achieved by letting them have the technology for both operational and their own use. The personal side operates via a SIM card, with work functionality digitally installed and encrypted using Samsung’s Knox security platform. The two sides are completely discrete from one another.

“We want officers to think of the devices almost as personal items, which in turn gives them a sense of responsibility when they’re using them on the beat. We didn’t want these things getting broken or lost, which is something we hope we’ve ensured by giving them free calls via our contract with Vodafone. “That’s a bit of a departure for the Service to be honest, which traditionally has always been very top-down. Now, rather than providing a 40-page policy document, it’s more a case of [trusting them] to look after the kit and use it sensibly. We now have officers using the devices instead of their own phones.”

Pre-existing back end
GMP’s mobile working project began in the latter part of 2016 when, collaborating with its strategic delivery partner EY, it trialled the use of 10,000 tablets and Samsung J5 smartphones across 10 metropolitan boroughs. The devices were rolled out to anyone with a frontline operational role.

Core to this was technology company HCL, which provided a suite of apps linked to integral aspects of frontline police work. Sitting alongside everyday applications such as Google Maps and email, these provide officers with a choice of standard service functions including data search, the ability to log crimes, the taking of witness statements and so on.

Sharad Rathi represents HCL’s government solutions group, and is one of Greater Manchester Police’s primary contacts at the company. He says that the main area of concern was that the apps could integrate with the organisation’s existing back end, for instance its Operational Policing Unit System (OPUS). This was to ensure that officers could both access and update centralised information while out on patrol.

“We demonstrated what our solution could do for GMP out of the box,” he says. “In terms of app functionality, the first drop included core solutions such as electronic witness statements. The second – which took place earlier this year – incorporated things like traffic offence reports.

“Going forward we predict that you’ll see more ideas being developed by individual users. Things like property tracking and mobile ID [digital fingerprinting] could be big opportunities.”

This comment is particularly pertinent, echoing as it does the possibility that the ESN might provide the impetus to help co-ordinate ICT across the emergency services. This could be achieved via app sharing between organisations and maybe even centralised procurement.

“I’m not in the Home Office so I’ve got no influence over police forces,” says Rathi. “But we’ve indicated to our customers – which include the Police Service of Northern Ireland, East Midland forces, Kent, and Essex as well as GMP – that if we’re developing a functionality for one there’s no reason it can’t benefit them all. Again that’s dependent on pre-existing infrastructure; for instance if one force is using Niche and another has OPUS.

“From a developer’s point of view it makes my life easier because my product gets standardised in the long term. And for the police services it means that they can co-ordinate and procure in concert with one another from a pre-existing, continually evolving set of functionalities.”

Not gone, not forgotten
The North West is expected to be the first region to transition to the Emergency Services Network mid-2018. The South West will go last in 2019, a timescale partly dictated by the Airwave contract, which (potential necessary extensions not withstanding) comes to an end around that time.

You might imagine that in the meantime users could be weaning themselves off TETRA, particularly given the aforementioned integration of 4G into business-as-usual operations. According to Airwave operations director Martin Benke however, this isn’t happening.

Airwave has continually evolved since its inception,” he says, “and that process will continue right up until the end of the contract. The three emergency services still have their own requirements in relation to critical voice communications, and likewise we still have a commitment to provide a level of service over and above what’s required of us in the contract. Mission-critical features such as the 4G push-to-talk standard are still in development.”

He continues: “Customers are still coming to the company with requests to provide special coverage, and Airwave solutions are likewise still being installed across the emergency services estate. For example, police forces are using third party networks for mobile applications – such as the Airwave mobile data application Pronto – as well as non-critical voice.

“It’s a process of continual improvement and refinement, right up until the end of the contract,” he says. “We are keen to keep the system working and working well.”

An illustration of this need for continuing vigilance is BT’s plan to withdraw its dedicated digital private circuit service KiloStream, which connects the majority of Airwave’s base stations. Airwave is currently in the process of replacing all the BT KiloStream circuits with its own self-provided microwave, and the company is also deploying dedicated staff to go out and manage the system. This process began in 2014 and is ongoing.

As former Airwave chief operating officer John Lewis said at the time: “We have decided to make the investment now as it ties in with our move towards technology beyond the core TETRA network.”

Its finest hour?

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The UK emergency services’ most urgent requirement relating to the Emergency Services Network is that it replicates Airwave’s capacity to provide instant, reliable push-to-talk. Nowhere was this effectiveness better illustrated than at the 2012 London Olympics, where the company was asked to provide – “in record time” – a bespoke PMR service for one of the most complex public events in history. According to Airwave, this meant enhancements to support tens of thousands of additional users, including Games staff and volunteers.

Network shutdown
A lot of discussion has taken place about the Emergency Services Network since it was announced in 2015. This has revolved primarily around budget, issues with the tendering process, the various alterations to timescale – and whether it even needs to exist at all given the ongoing efficacy of the system it’s replacing.

However, the tone of the discourse seems to be starting to shift now; away from the project’s inherent risks to potential opportunities when devices are eventually rolled out. The ability to develop apps in line with the specific needs of public safety personnel on the frontline is integral to that, still cautious, optimism. So too is the continuing availability of Airwave, which will be central to UK public safety communications until the contract runs out and the network is shut down. A full report on the BAPCO Exhibition and Conference 2017 can be found here


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