Cross-border emergency communications: no agency is an island

Emergencies and disasters know no boundaries. Public safety agencies need to have communications in place across borders to quickly and effectively respond, minimising loss of life and protecting property. Richard Martin hears from a number of those involved

Progress has been made in enabling public safety and emergency agencies to work across international borders in the Nordic countries, and similar programmes are advancing in Northern Europe. In the USA and Canada, the enormous border includes dense urban areas, mountains, prairies and forests. With Canada having selected Band 14 700MHz for a future national public safety broadband network, the potential for interworking with FirstNet in the USA during emergencies has been laid.

Will the same story play out in Europe and other regions as secure 4G/LTE moves forward? Let us consider some options and examples for cross-border communications.

Just call me…'
Mobile phones work across borders, and one way for agencies to connect during emergencies is to share and store numbers for when the need arises. Public mobile phones have well-known drawbacks when used by public safety officers. Generally they prefer their secure two-way radios to talk to colleagues; projects to connect these are reviewed later. But controllers, civil administrators and sometimes the officers themselves may have to use a cell phone to call for cross-border help or to pass on critical information.

One factor in favour of the use of public systems is that organisations such as utilities, volunteers, local authority staff, in fact anybody who may be needed to assist, can be contacted if their names are available to the emergency control centres. Another possibility is using commercial LTE to provision cross-border emergency communications. This could be made more secure with a separate protected core, accessible from agencies on both sides. But in the future, public safety 4G/LTE may be the ultimate solution for cross-border communications.

Let’s review the work on the current cross-border secure radio connections.

The story in Northern/Central Europe
European programmes include international talk groups. These were identified and co-ordinated by the Public Safety Radio communications Group (PSRG), an informal working group linking European Safety TETRA, TETRAPOL and P25 operators and users, which meet twice a year.

The Law Enforcement Working Party (LEWP) was established within the Council of the European Union. One of the party’s subgroups, the Radio Communications Expert Group (RCEG), aims to set up a technology-neutral, EU-wide fleetmap standard. Currently, a first white paper on international fleetmapping, developed and approved by the PSRG, is to be submitted to the Council via the LEWP.

Etienne Lezaack, the systems architect for operations in the Belgian Federal Police, adds: “Looking to the future with LTE, and next-generation PTT applications, LEWP/RCEG is looking forward to the possibility to realise the first plugtests between public agency networks using 4G networks. In principle, agencies will use the PSRG WG International fleetmapping framework to work together. If we consider France and Belgium, France is working to implement a Public Safety Broadband System for the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024; the projected implementation for a similar system in Belgium is 2025-2026, with the TETRA network maintained until 2030 in order to allow a smooth migration.

“Eleven countries, including France and Belgium, are participating in the European HORIZON2020 project, called BroadWay (, with the goal of procuring the development of a solution capable of enabling cross-border and cross-organisation operability between European public safety organisations within their future broadband radio networks.”

David Lund, BroadWay’s project co-ordinator, says it has received a “suitable number of tenders”. The contracts with the successful suppliers were signed on 7 October.

Turning to Belgium’s approach to cross-border critical comms, Lezaack says: “At this time Belgium and the Netherlands have semi-roaming in place for pursuit situations. This interim arrangement should remain in place until the deployment of the new Dutch TETRA network from Hytera and the development of a structural connection between the networks of Belgium and the Netherlands.”

Between Belgium and Luxembourg, technical developments by the two manufacturers Airbus and Motorola are available and are installed on the ASTRID and RENITA networks by their respective network operators. The implementation of a full ISI (ISI phase 3) was recently initiated during a common kick-off meeting. The steering group, composed of technical experts, user representatives and operator representatives of both countries, intends to make the ISI functionalities available to the user communities of ASTRID and RENITA by July 2020.

Belgium also has borders with Germany and France; some limited PTT interaction with control centres in these countries are enabled, but this is not as comprehensive as with the Netherlands.

Cross-border comms in the Nordic countries have come a long way since the trial of ISI that took place on the Sweden-Norway border back in November 2016

Nordic update
The two-nation Sweden-Norway project for cross-border communications has extended to include Finland, the first such arrangement in the world. The Finnish Virve, Norwegian Nødnett and Swedish Rakel TETRA networks have been linked, allowing operators to access shared talk groups using their own radio terminals.

“We need to focus on developing shared routines, procedures and terminology,” says Matilde Brown Megård, project manager for the Norwegian ISI project. “Further, we need to arrange, monitor and evaluate cross-border exercises to make sure that we maintain the high level of service and security that our operators and our citizens are accustomed to. By focusing on such measures, we will achieve adequate expertise on all levels.”

“Work on the technical settings for the network and radios is largely complete,” adds Peteveikko Lyly from Erillisverkot, the Finnish emergency communications provider. “Users have defined around 300 talk groups to connect officers from all three countries, and these are being tested. Work groups meet regularly, and now the focus is moving to deployment and training. The control rooms and network cores are connected already. Radios on the Finnish side will need one upgrade to fully use the international networks; this will include vehicle radios. Finnish ambulances and fire engines are already upgraded, police car upgrades are in progress.” Lyly expects the process to be complete by mid-2020 and adds: “At this time there is no plan to use 4G/LTE networks in any cross-border operations.”

In terms of joint exercises, Sweden hosted Barents Rescue 2019, which took place in September, to test the readiness of the equipment and the users, as well as the operational procedures. The Barents Agreement was signed in 2008 between the governments of Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Russian Federation. The event included practical training and exercises for officers, TETRA radio communications, seminars, and workshops. The exercise also included a large disaster victim identification simulation.

US/Canada cross-border communications and trials
Agencies on both sides of the 8,891km US/Canada border have been co-operating for some time. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) is a federal force operating across Canada; as such it needs to link with agencies in the US for border incidents. It states that “co-operation between Canadian and American law enforcement agencies is key to ensuring the safety and security of residents on either side of the border. The RCMP has partnered with US agencies to allow our communications networks to interoperate through a mechanism to connect via their respective radio networks. In one specific example, members of the RCMP Shiprider unit based in Windsor, Ontario have successfully used this radio interoperability to co-ordinate enforcement actions with their colleagues in the US. Successful operations have included interdictions of vessels crossing the international border on the water, which were facilitated by real-time radio communications between our two countries.”

Over a number of years, a series of US/Canada trials have been held; these five CAUSE trials demonstrate inter-agency working at several levels. CAUSE V was held in November 2017 in British Colombia, Canada and the state of Washington, USA. A simulation of a volcanic eruption and crater collapse on Mount Baker in northern Washington state was devised. Though unlikely, if this were to happen there would be floods along a number of rivers on both sides of the border as well as dangerous mudslides. This exercise used 700MHz LTE networks linked to several emergency operation centres (EOC) providing live, or near real-time, data and imagery from the field using robots and personnel. Overall, 17 American and 13 Canadian agencies took part in the trial. The after-action report can be found at

The emergency services radio and 911 service in the Greater Vancouver area are both operated by E-Comm 911, the province’s largest emergency communications centre. Gordon Kirk, E-Comm’s senior wireless service delivery manager, gives an update on how E-Comm 911 works with the equivalent agencies in Washington state.

“We participate in quarterly meetings with the Canadian and US public safety officers as well as with the US radio service providers. At this time the P25 system itself in Canada is not inter-connected directly with a US system, but officers are able to work together using radios that have both P25 and VHF analogue capability. British Colombia and Washington state have a medical response mutual-aid agreement in place signed by the state governor and the provincial premier. This means that medical response in particular can be taken across the border in either direction, and medications and medical procedures are harmonised.”

The quarterly meetings review any recent issues and also plan exercises, and one such is planned for October this year with Whatcom County in the USA. Kirk adds that “as well as expanding and testing the range of frequencies available, there will be further development of common process for the responders”.

Many agencies are working together, notably US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Border Security Agency (CBSA), as the Integrated Border Enforcement Team (IBET). In addition, the significant risk of forest fires in this region necessitates close co-operation of the forestry and firefighting teams in both countries. Coastguard, Ministry of Transport and fire services all co-operate and communicate. Responders can pick up a “go bag” located at the border crossing containing a hydrant adapter, mapbook and radio frequency information.

“Talk group naming is important, and in the future when both sides are using 700MHz public safety LTE, we will be endeavouring to standardise the naming of channels,” says Kirk. “We are working with the provincial and national agencies, defining how LTE will be implemented for public safety here in Canada. This will greatly simplify cross-border communications when fully available; right now FirstNet is not available on the US side of the border in our region and it will be some time before Canada has a nationwide system. Let’s not forget that public cell phones give us cross-border communications today. Fire and police chiefs and other officers have each other’s numbers; at this time we have to use telephony to connect dispatch centres over the border.
911 calls can be redirected over the border today, but integrating the operating picture and dispatch is something for the future.”

Manufacturer ISI participation
Jaakko Saijonmaa, senior expert from Airbus Defence and Space, tells us that the TETRA ISI standard had been in place for some time, with certificates issued to a number of manufacturers; a number of TETRA terminals have ISI migration capability. Airbus is participating in further ISI developments, including Mission Critical Services standardisation to link multiple MCS systems and legacy systems as part of 3GPP Release 16.

Airbus TETRA nationwide networks in Finland and Sweden support the three-way ISI implementation in the Nordic region, as well as work under way to link the Airbus Belgian TETRA network to Luxembourg. Tactilon Agnet links TETRA service across borders to LTE roaming smartphones. In terms of applications, Airbus is supporting developers in its TWISP programme such as a vehicle and person location (AVL) application that shows the location of end-users, their status and the active TETRA talk groups. The control room or dispatcher can see which unit is nearby and if they can accept a new task. This could be used in cross-border operations.

Planning and co-operation
The original Sweden/Norway project clearly shows the value of a strong political intent and commitment at high level to make a cross-border communications project work. Resources were made available, teams established, and manufacturers engaged to make the necessary technical changes to the core systems. The joint working groups were able to compare and harmonise working practices, and validate these in trials. In the case of the USA and Canada, a similar commitment to close co-operation was made between the then US president Barack Obama and Canadian premier Stephen Harper, and remains in place. In both of these cases the border is long, and officers need to establish good local working arrangements with their opposite numbers.

A great deal is learnt from trials and exercises. These need careful planning, during which the all-important relationships are established or strengthened. The five USA-Canada CAUSE exercises have generated learnings which can be built into the local processes as well as feeding into national programmes. Such exercises need to be repeated at a suitable interval; the Nordic Barents Rescue events are held every three years.

Finally, using secure LTE can advance cross-border communications for public safety. Canada and the USA are committed to using 700MHz, which will simplify such links. In Europe, the public 4G networks are in place and can be leveraged. The next step will be to ensure the security and resilience of these in the context of cross-border emergency communications, and to create applications such as MCPTT, messaging and resources management.

The technologies are largely in place to achieve this, and standards work continues. Close working relationships across borders are vital, and implementation will now become a matter of political willpower and the commitment of resources.