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New emergency services network would put public at risk, says expert

Thursday, November 20th 2014 by Ellen Branagh

A telecoms expert has urged the government to “get it right” before switching to a new communications system for emergency services.

Mike Norfield, CEO of telecommunications specialist TTG, said the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP) is being driven by political motives rather than public safety.

The programme could see communications for all three emergency services moved on to commercial networks when the current contract comes to an end in 2016.

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

But the private network, while providing security and resilience, cannot provide broadband data services and is considered expensive compared to some systems.

A new ESMCP framework, thought to be worth up to £1.2billion, is currently in procurement.

The new 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 Mr Norfield, whose company provides communications products and services, expressed concerns that the move is coming too soon, before the reliability of 4G networks for use by emergency services can be tested.

Coverage and partial not-spots across the UK could cause safety issues, he warned, with difficulties also arising if networks have to grant priority to emergency services in major incidents.

He told Cable.co.uk that decisions about ESMCP were being driven by people who “haven’t got a clue about what it’s like to be at the sharp end of policing”.

The CEO, who worked for the Metropolitan Police earlier in his career, said: “I’ve sat in a van during the Notting Hill Carnivals. I’ve been in the Brixton Riots.

“And I can tell you, when you’re at the sharp end, it’s not about money, it’s about saving lives – sometimes your own.

“And when you’re in that environment and people are throwing petrol bombs at you… it’s not a pretty place to be.

“It upsets me when I see people making decisions, whether that be in the Home Office or in government, where they’re misinformed about the realities of what the end user actually needs.”

While driving through mobile not-spots is inconvenient for consumers, he said, it could have serious consequences for emergency services.

“We (consumers) put up with the fact it’s not 100% available, it might be a bit patchy or a bit ropey, or Skype cuts off, and the quality wasn’t great,” he said.

“Change the scenario – a policeman using cellular phones or the 4G networks. What’s a copper going to do?

“’Oh sorry, I’m chasing this armed criminal but I might lose you. I’ll give you a call back when I’ve got coverage’.

“What happens when he doesn’t phone you back? When the armed robber knows there’s no coverage there and stops his car, gets out and shoots the copper?

“You’ve got to have this mission-critical communication.”

There are hopes that commercial networks’ investment in 4G will bring higher capacity, reducing the risk of them becoming “swamped” during major incidents or occasions like New Year’s Eve.

Mr Norfield also questioned how ruthless pre-emption – guaranteed access for emergency services in a certain circumstances – would fit with providers’ commercial obligations to their customers.

“Are you going to take a commercial network that has commercial responsibilities to its shareholders, making money, against the police national network whose whole ethos is about saving lives and being available? The two don’t meet.”

He accepted that the future of emergency services communication would lie in LTE, but said the technology would not be ready in such a short timeframe. He added: “I’m all for moving to new technology as long as the technology can provide the service.

“But the whole concept of doing it is, ‘get it right first’.

“If you’re going to move and shut Airwave down you’ve got to have a complete, entire 100% coverage network service availability in the whole of the UK for the police, fire and ambulance.

“We know that the technology is not quite there yet.”

He said the Home Office should be thinking about the effects switching to a new system would have on public safety.

“I would make sure we maintain what we’ve got today and I would have a roadmap for moving to the new technology.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The emergency services need a modernised communications network to help them protect the public and save lives, and we are on track to deliver this critical part of our national infrastructure by 2017.”

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