Providing Mission-Critical Communications

Keith Turner, the guest writer for this article is a former Chief Constable of Gwent Police.

Keith also held national roles for the Association of Chief Police Officers in the General Policing and Information Management Business Areas where he was Deputy Chair. Keith also led for the Police Service in the field of Information and Intelligence Sharing and Communications. He is uniquely positioned to give an expert opinion on mission-critical communications

What does it take to provide mission-critical communications?

Great Britain’s emergency services are hierarchical organisations with well developed command and control structures, policies and practices that have evolved over time and have been regularly tested as society and natural phenomena have made demands upon them.

The need to effectively communicate with their resources, deploy them, and receive reports on their availability and updates on incidents is perhaps more important today than it has ever been. This is due to increasingly demanding public expectation and a general reduction in human resources due to austerity measures.

The requirement to have effective communication systems has been highlighted in many historic public enquiries and reports in relation to major incidents and disasters whether natural or terrorist linked. Public expectation of the emergency services is being built to a certain extent by citizens' own exposure to, and use of, sophisticated communications technology and regular close scrutiny of service delivery by the media.

The work our emergency services do every single day in the line of duty is unpredictable and full of risks. As such emergency services require a higher standard of communications and they need it instantly.

With technology moving forward, and increasing demands on the emergency services, I pose the question ‘what does it take to provide mission-critical communications?’ and examine the importance of getting it right.

In the past the emergency services had at their disposal the means to communicate with their personnel that ordinary citizens did not possess. However, this has changed dramatically since the advent of public mobile communication devices and most of our population now regularly use more than one such device.

It is naturally assumed that with new mobile technologies and capabilities the emergency services can do what the public do – immediately adopt new communications technologies in their daily work. It is a fact of life that this is not quite reality with emergency services communications, largely due to their ‘emergency’ role. The work our emergency services do every single day in the line of duty is unpredictable and full of risks. As such emergency services require a higher standard of communications and they need it instantly. Communications are mission-critical for our emergency services.

It is easy to think simply that anything which is available for the public to use, such as new smart devices, commercial mobile broadband, and apps, can be used by emergency services. There is nothing to suggest that this couldn’t happen, but we must remember that emergency services requirements differ from public requirements in a very significant way so let’s explore the reasons why.

Resilience & Coverage

Communications can be a lifeline for our emergency services and so network coverage can never be in question. Communications act as an enabler for our services when summoning urgent assistance, communicating the events of an incident or to simply deploying resources to an emergency situation. No matter what, communications MUST work wherever, whenever.

Knowing that communications are tried tested and reliable is paramount in mission-critical communications along with devices which are robust and ruggedised. As a member of the public, if my mobile coverage is unavailable it is personally extremely frustrating. As a member of the emergency services, if I am out of coverage I might not be able to do my job and in an emergency situation if I can’t do my job, something serious and life threatening could happen.


Transport your mind back 13 years, and remember a time when emergency services communications could be eavesdropped. During this time information discussed by emergency services could be listened to by journalists, terrorists, criminals, not to mention Ham Radio operators – amateurs and enthusiasts.

With the types of information our emergency services communicate to one another, it is vital that any communications they have are completely secure, and those handling the communications do the utmost to uphold the integrity and confidentiality of data. Bear in mind recent security breaches from journalists, online data theft, hacking and phone hacking and you can understand why security still remains an important element of emergency services communications.

Responsiveness and Interoperability

A split second can make a world of difference for our emergency services. Responsiveness of communications for our emergency services is essential. Responsiveness can include a myriad of things:

  • The ability for a communications provider to respond in extreme conditions to ensure communication is working throughout, no matter what. Maintaining service 24/ 7/ 365.
  • A single button which, if pressed during an emergency, will override communications and put you to the top of the list – facilitating emergency back-up being at your side within minutes. Trusting this emergency button to work every time it is pressed, which currently is every six minutes in Great Britain.
  • Knowing you can press a button and talk to many colleagues within a group.

Whether there is a major incident or a ‘business as usual’ occurrence, our emergency services work together on an ever increasing basis. Maintaining the ability to communicate seamlessly between emergency organisations is just the beginning of their unique needs. Collaborative working is essential not only for the services, but also for the supplier of communications. Making sure that all of the complex basics are in place to enable responsive interoperability is just the beginning of our emergency services needs and requirements.

This short analysis highlights the uniqueness of the communications needs of our emergency services. Needs which take significant design, preparation, time, and testing to address and provide.

A report by the American National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) on 22 May 2014 stipulates detailed guidance with requirements and recommendations that should be applied to their National Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) and both existing and new terrestrial radio systems. Introducing the term ‘Public Safety Grade’ the report outlines very detailed specifications in order to mitigate the risk presented by environmental and manmade events as well as other threats to the network.

It includes sections on reliability and resilience, coverage, push to talk, performance, scalability and security which contain best practice guidance that applies not only to the private NPSBN but also to any elements of commercial networks that may be used when shared facilities are utilised. This report provides evidence to support the importance of getting emergency services communications right, as well as showing what it takes to provide mission-critical communications as we have examined earlier.

So what next for mission-critical communications technology? As implied with the NPSTC report, with communications for emergency services being mission-critical, the technology used should be scrutinised with appropriate standards applied to govern them.

With significant change on the horizon through the next technological step change to long term evolution (LTE) or 4G, emergency services will be able to utilise data capabilities and broadband functionality. LTE also has the potential low latency feature that most experts believe will, in time, deliver the fast call set up speeds that are required for the emergency services mission-critical voice application.

The standards required for LTE to be used in the emergency service arena, particularly in relation to voice communication on 4G networks, are currently in the development phase. These standards are vital and when they are available they will not only help to ensure the safety and security of capabilities, but also that savings in relation to economies of scale can be accessed. Whilst we endeavour to guide these standards for the future of emergency services communications, the best way forward currently for our emergency services is via a hybrid solution. What do I mean by a hybrid solution?

A subject of recent industry debate – white papers and reports consider the best way forward for mission-critical communications. In Germany a recent government white paper concluded that a hybrid solution of TETRA for voice and LTE for data would be required for many years. Additionally, a recent US Congress report by the Congressional Research Service commented that their government funded 4G service would only carry data and video for some time and their equivalent of TETRA would still be required for mission-critical voice.

Examining these debates along with the needs of our continually evolving emergency services, has suggested the best way to move forward is with a solution that balances the mission-critical benefits of a dedicated network and the cost advantages of a commercial service – a hybrid Network. In the hybrid model the emergency services retain the benefit of secure mission-critical voice until a standards compatible LTE voice capability has been shown to deliver to mission-critical requirements. The dedicated element of the network provides a national resilient communications platform that covers the landmass of Great Britain, but also enables users to access commercial networks as operationally appropriate.

We can already see emergency service organisations trialling hybrid approaches in their communications today. For example, Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) utilise Airwave’s Emergency Services Network (ESN) for mission-critical communications with the control room, whilst trialling the benefits of reliable broadband solutions.

This type of hybrid approach enables Hampshire FRS to support and manage resources and equipment on-site at incidents by being able to access vital information such as building and site plans and risk assessment forms which are updated every 30 minutes.