Always changing, always evolving

Critical Communications Today talks to two organisations – one manufacturer, one user – about the development, provision and deployment of two-way radio technology for public safety.
Always changing, always evolving

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A constant theme now running through almost every issue of Critical Communications Today is the way in which the use of traditional radio technology on the frontline is being increasingly augmented by ‘new’ broadband solutions. Indeed, this trend is now so ubiquitous and far-reaching, several years ago we went as far as to change our name from TETRA Today to the title you currently view on your screen.

As increasingly important as broadband is becoming, however, there is still some fascinating work taking place when it comes to the development and deployment of narrowband-based solutions. This could be in the realm of TETRA (which is still widely considered the gold standard for the technology), P25 or indeed in relation to the DMR standard. The sector is also seeing the introduction of an increasing number of hybrid solutions, as demanded by users.

In this article, we are going to zero in on the work of a single manufacturer doing some truly interesting work in the field, working in close collaboration with users themselves. We will also provide examples of how radio technology is being deployed from the user perspective, focusing in particular on the extraordinary work being carried out through the New South Wales Telco Authority.

From analogue to digital

When it comes providing mission-critical communications, technology manufacturers and their partners service a wide range of verticals. These include utilities, mining, aviation,
and more.

Perhaps the most high-profile deployments, however, take place within the emergency services context, certainly when it comes to nationally rolled-out mission-critical networks. One company which is doing some interesting work with the emergency services is Tait Communications, particularly in relation to its technology for the fireground.

Discussing the deployment of its DMR Tier 2 solution to East and West Sussex fire and rescue services in the UK, as well as London Fire Brigade, the company’s managing director, Dave Turner, said: “We’ve been carrying out work with fire services in the UK, essentially to try and change the way they perceive the role of two-way radio on the fireground.

“Traditionally, the technology which has been used by British fire and rescue services on the fireground is analogue-based, which comes with a certain set of restrictions. In terms of the fire and rescue organisations that we’ve been working with, their analogue equipment was also proving to be less effective than it was. It started off really well but had aged quite poorly.”

He continues: “Regarding East Sussex, they were also having issues with coverage, so we talked to them about different intrinsically safe ratings to provide them with higher power. When the UK’s Fire Chiefs Council start to move towards digital [for the fireground], they’re going to be ready for that journey. The devices in question have the capability to switch between digital and analogue mode.”

As well as the work being carried out in relation to fireground radios themselves, Tait has also been involved in a project to make communication easier for firefighters while wearing personal protective equipment/breathing apparatus.

Elaborating on this, Turner says: “Historically speaking, there has been little integration between the radio itself and the breathing apparatus being worn by firefighters in the field. So, we worked with safety equipment manufacturers MSA and Drager in order to customise some of the settings and audio processing abilities of the radio. Now, when the BA gear is plugged into the radio equipment, it’s already tuned, and the audio’s already set up.

“For us, it’s all about continuity and quality of communication, certainly in that environment. It’s one thing to be able to get a path across from the radio to the incident site, but you also have to understand what’s being said. That can be difficult when you’ve got someone breathing heavily into a mask in a very hostile and dangerous situation.”

From Turner’s perspective, Tait Communications is doing important work in the development of new two-way radio solutions for use by firefighters on the frontline. This is being carried out in collaboration with the UK fire and rescue services mentioned above, but also public safety-orientated organisations elsewhere in Europe.

One of these is a Swiss fire authority which has likewise also started to deploy DMR on the fireground, alongside a private LTE system. The purpose of this, according to Turner, is to provide the opportunity to leverage PTT over Cellular devices which can also communicate with the aforementioned DMR.

“The exciting bit,” he says, “is the biometric monitoring. We’ve been working with a UK company called Hidalgo, who provide a really good biometric harness, linking data to the back office. We can take their data and feed it back over the narrowband LMR network.”

As well as communications purely for the fireground, meanwhile, the company is trying to extend its ‘continuity of communication’ concept by attempting to link the frontline back to the control room.

This idea was outlined by the company’s senior business development manager Richard Russell when CCT spoke to him earlier in the year. He explained the company’s AXIOM concept, via which users leveraging different handsets are able to talk to each other across multiple carriers. (For instance, LTE broadband, analogue, DMR and so on).

Discussing this, Russell said: “Fundamentally, this part of the Axiom concept enables those working in the control room to convey voice information via an LTE connection to the incident itself.

“This information is then re-broadcast from the command vehicle in real time, with very little latency. In terms of the fireground, it would then be re-broadcast over the UHF bearer to both the firefighters on the ground and at the bridgehead.

“That being the case, it could also conceivably enable firefighters to receive information from the person actually reporting the incident. The member of the public in question could give incident information via the controller, as well as details about the location.”

Turner elaborates further: “The next step will be linking the fireground back to the control centre, which is something that we’re absolutely looking at. At the moment, there’s caution around that particular approach, basically because organisations don’t want a voice in the firefighter’s ear when they’re in the middle of a life-or-
death situation.

“That being the case, in the first instance we’d plan to allow communication from the control room to the incident commander. We have the flexibility to do that, allowing different talk groups across the network.”

Going back to the topic of the DMR roll-outs discussed above, one element that makes the work particularly interesting – over and above the technology – is the level of collaboration with the emergency services organisations themselves. According to Turner, this was a lengthy process, beginning as far back as 2018 when one of the radio leads at East Sussex FRS witnessed a presentation given by the company in the UK and liked what they saw.

Rather than simply selling the service as much equipment as they could as quickly as possible, however, the company embarked on what Turner describes as a lengthy process of trying to understand how the firefighters in question carry out operations on
the fireground.

This work was in turn followed by the development of customised firmware for the aforementioned radios, with the aim of providing a specific quality of service when it came to voice. There was also, naturally enough, a testing process, during which firefighters would “go into the fire box, make some calls, and tell us what worked and what didn’t”.

Going into greater detail about how this level of collaboration also benefited the company going forward – particularly in terms of gaining additional business – Turner continues: “We were very lucky that West and East Sussex in the UK share a team, meaning that the person that we worked with at the latter then took the learning to the former.

“The West Sussex deployment was slightly different to East Sussex. It’s the same equipment but set up slightly differently in order to take account of their processes, which are very specific. Since then, it’s been an iterative process with other fire and rescue services across the country.”

Model of innovation

One user organisation which is proving to be a model of both innovation and best practice when it comes to the integration of a variety of different technologies including two-way radio, is New South Wales Telco Authority.

Giving an overview of the organisation and the radio equipment used by it, its chief digital and technology officer, James Pickens, says: “NSW Telco Authority operates and maintains the public safety network [PSN] for the Australian state of New South Wales (NSW).

[The state] has a population of around eight million and extends across more than 801 square kilometres.

“The PSN uses mission-critical LMR digital P25 technology. P25 technology is secure, reliable, interoperable with other LMR networks and allows operation in high-power mode to provide coverage over large areas. To maximise geographic coverage, we also use low-band UHF spectrum [400MHz], [which is] essential for such a large catchment area. The network operates at a 99.95 per cent target availability.”

According to Pickens, the organisation is also continuing to expand the network through what he refers to as a “once-in-a-generation” $1.4bn investment from the NSW government. This expansion – which is 40 per cent complete – will enable the network to grow from 150 sites to 675.

Discussing what this means in terms of increased coverage, he says: “[Our] baseline 150 sites provide less than 80 per cent population and 35 per cent land coverage. Following the new investment, this will increase to cover 97.7 per cent of the population, while extending across 85 per cent of the state. On completion, the PSN will be one of the world’s largest P25 networks in terms of coverage area and site count.”

In situations where P25 coverage is unavailable, meanwhile, the organisation adopts what it calls “supplementary coverage solutions”, relying on either coverage from commercial carriers or satellite as a transmission medium linking back to the PSN core.

At the same time, the authority is also rolling out a fleet of what it calls ‘cells on wheels’, which are essentially portable mobile towers. These are primarily designed for deployment in locations without PSN coverage, as well as during disasters and periods of network maintenance.

The organisation is likewise working with public safety organisations to develop a framework of other portable technologies, such as additional MESH networks, ‘vehicle as a node’ solutions and additional cells on wheels. Again, these will be in areas where connectivity is difficult to maintain, such as major highways, remote locations and during outages.

This article began with a discussion of the increasing interest in broadband-enabled communications technology on the part of global ‘mission critical’ organisations, something which is likely only going to increase as we move forward. That being the case, it should be no surprise that NSW Telco Authority is also planning for its own public safety mobile broadband capability.

Discussing this, Pickens says: “The Australian government, along with the states and territories, are working to develop an interoperable PSMB capability. [This is] to provide mission-critical voice and data services to enable emergency services organisations to adopt data-heavy technologies such as personal location tracking, body camera live streams and bushfire monitoring drones.

“Under this federated model, PSMB will form the backbone of the solution NSW is developing to ensure first-responders have prioritised access to the resilient, reliable mobile broadband spectrum they need to send and receive data, video and voice to and from the field.”

NSW Telco Authority is currently undertaking a customer-led solution design process in relation to the network, once again involving public safety organisations.

This is to “ensure that the solutions we create meet first-responders’ needs, providing the reliable communication they need when they need it most. [This could be] during floods and bushfires, when commercial carrier networks often fail.”

The mission-critical sector has traditionally been dependent on two-way radio in all its forms to provide reliable, resilient, mission-critical voice. While this is still very much the case – and will be for a long time to come – this model is now being continually augmented through the adoption of other, increasingly diverse technologies.

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