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Obama's Stonehenge visit a 'curve-ball' for emergency services network

Tuesday, December 23rd 2014 by Ellen Branagh

The NATO Summit saw an eight-fold increase in the number of people using the emergency services radio network, the company that runs it has revealed.

Airwave, which runs the purpose-built network used by police, fire and ambulance services, said the summit held at the Celtic Manor Resort near Newport, Wales, in September, saw 580,000 calls made by its users in the immediate area on one day of the summit.

The number on Thursday, September 4, is the equivalent to 30% of the traffic carried on Airwave’s Emergency Services Network (ESN) on a normal day in London, and was an eight-fold increase in users on the network on a typical Thursday night.

The NATO Summit saw 67 heads of state arrive in Wales, along with 150 other dignitaries, 10,000 staff and 2,000 media, prompting a security operation involving 1,500 police officers from Gwent and South Wales and 8,000 from other UK forces, as well as more than 600 police motor bikes.

The operation required Airwave, which covers 99% of Britain, to upgrade parts of its network, increasing the capacity at 29 of its base stations and installing extra ports to connect police control rooms, as well as putting equipment – effectively extra base stations – into the Celtic Manor hotel itself.

Speaking to Cable.co.uk, Airwave’s network operations director Martin Benke said they were used to dealing with huge events, such as the Olympics so the biggest policing event ever in Wales was planned and prepared for in the same way.

But he said one thing they could not plan for was US president Barack Obama’s impromptu visit to Stonehenge.

“We’re well practiced, we did it for the Commonwealth games, we do it for New Year’s Eve – any large major event," he said.

'Curve ball'

“The only thing that was unusual about Celtic Manor that we hadn’t done before was Obama’s visit to Stonehenge, that was the curve ball that came in.

“We got asked, ‘can you check the coverage and provide extra capacity at a site for us?’.

“We said, ‘well tell us where it is, we’ll check our coverage, and we’ll see if we can provide some extra capacity. ‘Sorry. We can’t tell you where it is – security reasons’.

“But eventually they did tell us and I think we learned probably ahead of most people that it was Obama going to Stonehenge so we could check our coverage and the capacity of the network.”

Mr Benke said preparing for the event involved talking with the forces involved to understand where their officers would be deployed, and adapting the network to make sure it had the necessary coverage and capacity to cope with the demand.

“It is also very much an iterative process because very often the policing plans will evolve as the event evolves,” he added.

“With something like the NATO summit one or two heads of state will say they’re coming, then when they find out who else is coming then it gets bigger and bigger or can get smaller and smaller.”

The government is currently looking at moving communications for the emergency services on to commercial networks through its Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme framework, which 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.

Mr Benke said the success of operations like the NATO summit, and previous major incidents, proved the ability of Airwave, to deal with the demands placed on it by the public safety bodies that use it, from emergency services and the military to non-government organisations and charities.

'Dedicated network'

“Airwave has many strengths and one is the fact it’s a dedicated network. “When I spoke to colleagues in Vodafone and asked what they were doing different for the NATO Summit the answer was nothing.

“They just don’t have experience of dealing with big increases like this.

“It proves the value of the Airwave network because we can provide a level of service that customers can rely on. We work with the customers, we plan ahead, and we deliver.

“And it is 100% independent of the public networks and that is a real strength of the airwave network, the face it is dedicated to the police fire and ambulance.”

In comments echoing those previously made by a former paramedic and ambulance service chief executive, Mr Benke said the fact the network is separate means it does not get congested during major incidents or events like New Year’s Eve.

He added: “The Airwave network has always got headroom for the unexpected. For every base station we understand how busy it’s been over the last three months and then we make sure there’s at least 25% spare capacity above that.

“So when you get the unexpected surge everyone in the network can deal with it.

“With the helicopter crash at Vauxhall [London], that was the biggest rollout of the emergency service in London since 7/7. And there was no capacity issue on the Airwave network because we’ve got that headroom built into the network.”

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