Shared communications for the UK's emergency service organisations


There is no question of the dedication and professionalism of those working at ground level in response to a major incident. However, apart from a few notable exceptions, most of the UK’s emergency services use independent communication networks with no or an extremely limited ability to intercommunicate between individual organisations. Graeme Hobbs looks at the situation and the possibilities for improved performance.

The usual structure for the main response services of the police, fire and ambulance is to have independent analogue radio networks with dedicated channels and their own control rooms to dispatch and mobilise resources. This format is echoed by other emergency response services such as the coast guard, air sea rescue, etc.

A very few organisations use the more modern and spectrally efficient ‘trunked radio’ technology. This employs powerful computer-controlled networks to connect workgroup members engaged on the same task and allocate communications space on the network without tying up a specific channel all the time. The first to opt for a shared network on a national basis in the UK was the police service which has chosen a digital, trunked national network based on a European open standard called TETRA.1 This national service, known as Airwave, will replace its current communications network and is being rolled out throughout the UK and should be completed by 2005. This article examines how a shared, national communications platform based on a common technology and to be used by all emergency services is the only way to deliver the operational benefits and improvements recommended by a variety of international review bodies after recent terrorist and natural disasters.

Reviews have a common recommendation for the future

A lack of inter-agency communications causes problems, delays and misunderstandings both at ground level and back in the command centres where senior officers develop the strategies to deal with incidents. Recent global events have triggered reviews to determine the way forward to improving interagency communications.

Following the dreadful 9/11 incidents in the US in 2001, the difference in the communications available to the responders in New York and the Pentagon emphasised the need for shared communications based on a common standard. A report by the Public Safety Wireless Network Programme (PSWN)2 in the USA after the events of 11 September at the Pentagon was developed to ‘provide an overview of the wireless communications component of the public safety response to the Pentagon’.3 Emergency services attending the Pentagon incident used a series of compatible, interoperable trunked networks. This approach had been developed following recommendations after a tragic aircraft crash into the River Potomac by Washington DC’s 14th Street Bridge in 1982. The Systems Manager of the Virginia’s Fairfax County communications network that was used extensively by officers responding to the Pentagon incident stated, ‘The on-scene communications were flawless’. The front-line responders had seamless and immediate, interagency communications using equipment from multiple suppliers.

This, unfortunately, was not the picture in New York. A number of non-connected systems were in use and the various emergency organisations had limited ability to interconnect and exchange vital information. The PSWN’s review of the performance of the network supporting public safety personnel attending the Pentagon incident had a number of recommendations for those elsewhere in the US and around the world responsible for developing communication solutions for public safety organisations. They stated: ‘Common standards and technologies should be considered integral to the design, procurement and implementation of future public safety communications systems’.4

The National Audit Office5 published a report in April 2002 into the public–private partnership for the procurement of a new mobile communications system for the police. This report revealed that the objective of common or interoperable radio communications between all three emergency services (police, fire and ambulance) was not being achieved. It voiced concern that the fire service had started a consortium for a regional procurement of a new mobile communication system and was looking at alternative technology solutions to that chosen by the police. The UK Parliament’s Defence Select Committee has reflected these concerns in their 6th Report on Defence and Security in the UK.6 The Committee stated that they ‘were particularly concerned at the prospect of the fire services procuring systems which might not be compatible either with other systems procured by other regional consortia, or with those of the police and ambulance services’.

The regional procurements previously proposed by the fire service have now been stopped and replaced by a procurement programme for a UK nationwide communication network. This is, unfortunately, still not addressing the whole issue because interoperability with other agencies is not necessarily guaranteed. This omission would be a significant flaw and would not follow the recommendations previously highlighted that call for ‘common standards and technologies’.

Modern trunked communication engineering solutions

Trunked radio-communication technology is not new, so the benefits of computer-controlled communications have already been enjoyed by a number of public safety and commercial users. Analogue trunked communications have been available for some time and are spectrally efficient, offering more communication capability in the same amount of spectrum than their conventional ‘dedicated channel’-based counterparts. They also change the fundamental approach to communications by grouping personnel in ‘talkgroups’. These are obvious groups of personnel engaged upon similar tasks or working as a team and who can benefit from being ‘all informed’ within their team. Digital trunked networks can offer even further advantages, both in spectral efficiency and communication efficiency as they offer voice and enhanced data communications in the same system, optimising any bandwidth made available within any particular scheme. Other benefits can include a variety of encryption levels for all voice and data calls.

An individual public safety organisation will, of course, benefit from the technology and operational features offered by a shared, trunked communications network. However, if they are enjoying these benefits in isolation from their public safety colleagues in different services, the ultimate potential for operational effectiveness and co-ordinated response to any major incident is still denied. Thus, the call for all public safety organisations to share a common communication technology.

Technology helps operational effectiveness

The change to a workgroup-oriented approach means that ‘talkgroups’ can share information and be constantly aware of progress and issues of others in their team. The dispatcher in the control room can talk to individual workgroups, individual officers or an entire work-fleet if required. Talkgroup configurations can be quickly updated or modified in the event of a major incident to include workgroups that may not normally be involved or who are usually located in another geographical area.

The benefits are not solely voice-centric. Modern digital technology opens up a world of data communications ranging from text messaging to take the place of voice, up to accessing remote databases to find relevant information to assist in the emergency response, for example looking at chemical databases (Hazchem registers) or ultimately exchanging digital images with the command centres to give a visual impression of the incident site. All of this voice and data exchange can be encrypted to ensure the privacy and security of information. Data throughput is variable depending upon the amount of forward error correction required. Advances elsewhere in the data applications industry have been catalytic in terms of transferring application solutions so they are available for public safety trunked communication solutions.

Impact outside of the operational areas

A single, shared network means that the number of antennas and antenna sites is kept to a minimum. Not only does this save money but it minimises the public disquiet and consequent delays when a new antenna site is proposed. Sometimes, elements of the network themselves can be affected by the disaster and may not function correctly. Floods or earthquakes are no respecters of base station sites. Modern trunked networks have a series of fallback modes so users can stay in touch and operate in areas without network coverage. Ultimately – either by choice or necessity – terminals can communicate directly between each other in an ‘off infrastructure’ mode.

Shared communications go handin-hand with shared management and shared access to information. The Netherlands is constructing a brand new series of shared regional control rooms that will control all their police, fire and ambulance services. This means that dispatchers responsible for particular services can exchange information about incidents at the control room level, enhancing co-ordination and response. And, they will be doing this on a shared communications network. This picture is reflected elsewhere around Europe where almost all new emergency service communication solutions are national and shared. Important databases held by specific organisations are much easier to access in this type of shared environment.

Common network – common European standard

The specification of communication technologies for emergency service users has already been successfully co-ordinated and published as the TETRA open standard by the world famous standards organisation – ETSI, the European Technology Standards Institute. This technology is at the heart of the UK’s new national police network, Airwave. The advantages of using an open standard supported by a wide variety of independent manufacturers as opposed to a single sourced proprietary solution are manifest, including longevity, maintenance, multi-sourcing of terminals and other equipment, reduced equipment prices and upgrades for users.

Investments in national shared solutions involve substantial amounts of money and taxpayers want assurance their money is being invested wisely. Users and operators of networks have a greater assurance that development by terminal, infrastructure, control room hardware and applications software industries is sustained. All of this makes for a competitive market with multiple sources of equipment and prices that conform to realistic market levels.

The cost of technology

There is no attempt to deny that digital, trunked networks will cost more than the analogue conventional systems they replace. The key phrase is ‘value for money’ and value must be determined by factors that go far deeper than just cost. A key measure will be the system’s ability to meet the needs for ‘joined-up’ communications as recommended by so many of the reviews. The efficiency and flexibility in communication, management of resources will ultimately fall to the bottom line of the user’s organisation. Trunked systems also offer a level of accountability and management of information not available in conventional systems. It is a fact of life that, at times, the evidence of communication can be as important as the communication itself.


There can be no doubt that, to deliver the response expected by the public and demanded by governments, interagency communication is vital. Every review points to the fact that a shared communications solution is at the heart of this solution. For national, integrated solutions, emergency service organisations have no other route to follow other than investing in a common technology operating on common frequencies and offering offinfrastructure communications as well. The specification for such solutions already exists – in Europe it is called TETRA and is already employed in the UK’s national police communications solution, Airwave. Faced with this overwhelming recommendation from experts around the world, why would anyone want to pursue an alternative strategy for the future of emergency service communications?


  1. TETRA = TErrestrial Trunked RAdio, the only ETSI approved open digital trunked communications standard.

  2. ‘Answering the Call – Communications Lessons Learned From the Pentagon Attack’, published by the US Public Safety Wireless Network Program, January 2002.

  3. PSWN report, ‘Answering the Call’, page 4.

  4. PSWN report, ‘Answering the Call’, page 23.

  5. See National Audit Office website for further details.

  6. 6th Report from the Defence Select Committee, Airwave section, see www.parliament.the-stationeryoffice. cmdefence/518/51802.htm

Other websites of interest


TETRA Memorandum of Understanding

Association –

Motorola –

Airwave –

Graeme Hobbs

Graeme Hobbs is a Director within Motorola’s European management team focussed on radio communications. Working closely with public safety chiefs, Home Office and DTI senior civil servants and mmO2 directors, Graeme leads the Motorola team fulfilling the world’s largest public safety communications contract for the UK’s police. Previously General Manager and Managing Director with other radiocommunication companies, he holds MSc and BSc degrees in Radiocommunication Systems and Electronic Engineering and is a member of the IEE.

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