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Mobile services 'gridlocked' during major incidents, dedicated emergency network the answer - expert

Friday, December 19th 2014 by Ellen Branagh

Any future emergency services network should be on a dedicated spectrum, according to a former paramedic and ambulance service chief executive.

Hayden Newton, ex-CEO of the East of England Ambulance Service and current consultancy head, said any new system would have to be able to handle surges at busy times to make sure emergency services workers could stay in touch when necessary.

The government is looking at the possibility of moving communications for the emergency services on to commercial networks.

Mr Newton, who now runs his own consultancy, told Cable.co.uk that, without a dedicated spectrum, emergency service workers could find themselves struggling to communicate during busy periods.

“Whenever I’ve dealt with a major incident as a gold commander or been involved in a major incident, one of the first things to happen is for mobile technology, telephones, to become gridlocked.

“That would be my worry if we didn’t have a dedicated spectrum.

“And also for them to shift a lot of data around in this network, it needs to be very quick to enable decision making and it needs to be accessible, for people have the confidence in it.”

Dealing with the 'surge'

Currently police, fire services and ambulance trusts, plus other organisations including the army, use the purpose-built Airwave network.

But a new Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme framework, thought to be worth up to £1.2billion, is currently in procurement.

The planned system, which will use 4G LTE networks, is hoped to bring faster internet connections, giving emergency workers the ability to transfer data such as pictures and video, and be more affordable.

But one expert previously told Cable.co.uk that coverage and partial not-spots could cause safety issues, as well as problems if networks become flooded in major incidents.

And in an independent report Mr Newton, who acts as an advisor on ambulance services for Airwave, said any emergency services 4G network should have dedicated spectrum that would allow staff to use new technology like video streaming to deal with growing pressures.

“The big thing for the emergency services is reliability, coverage, but it’s also the ability to deal with surge as well,” he said.

“Take something like New Year’s Eve for the emergency services – particularly ambulance services and police – the number of calls quadruple.

Capability and resilience

“You’ve got to have a system which has got the capability and resilience to take that increase in call volume, you can’t afford for it to fall down.”

Another worry is the safety of lone workers if their communications cannot be guaranteed, especially as ambulance services rely more and more on community first responders and lone paramedics in response cars, he said.

Mr Newton said it was “unacceptable” that people working on their own in difficult situations might be left without communications if networks were busy.

“If they get called out to a house, get in the house, and get cornered by someone with a gun, and they’ve got no communications, what do they do?

“The lone worker safety aspect for me is a real big one. Bearing in mind ambulance services are running more and more community first responders which are single responders and are running more and more paramedics on response cars on their own, that’s the model they run.”

He said as far as he had been made aware, experts from all three emergency services were contributing to the consultation into any new system, but added: “I just hope what’s on the outside of the can is in the inside at the end of the day.”

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