Engineering a safer future

With shockwaves from the UK Grenfell Tower disaster still being felt, Tait Communications talks to CCT about a new solution it believes can provide complete comms continuity across the fireground

As has been widely reported, one of the key pieces of emergency services learning to come out of the UK Grenfell Tower disaster centred around the use of communications on the incident ground.

One apparent issue in this regard revolved around firefighters’ difficulty in talking to commanders on the ground. While this is clearly not the place to explore this topic as fully as it deserves, suffice to say that evidence given at the subsequent incident inquiry will likely have given first-responder organisations across the world food for thought.

With that in mind – with the shockwaves from Grenfell still reverberating – we are reporting in this article on a new radio solution which, according to its manufacturer, might have gone some way to negating the issues that hampered firefighters during that awful day in London in 2017.

Developed by Tait Communications, the suite of products in question includes a vehicle device and a wearable, offering the potential to act as a personal area network gateway, in order to leverage multiple bearers. These include LTE broadband, analogue and DMR (P25) to improve communications in almost any environment, mission critical or otherwise.

Use of multiple bearers

Discussing the product and where it fits in with the rest of the company’s communications ecosystem, Tait’s senior business development manager, Richard Russell, says: “The TWX550 wearable device is part of our new TAIT AXIOM broadband solutions platform, which we launched at IWCE in Las Vegas. It is a suite of cloud-based software services, applications and devices, designed for use in the business and mission-critical environment.

“In terms of hardware – alongside wearables – it includes a vehicle-based solution, the TMX450. The software piece includes workflow applications integrated into the TMX450 to enhance productivity.”

A decent summary of Tait AXIOM’s raison d’être can be found on the Tait website. According to the online description, the system exists to “enable workers with applications that help them collaborate, co-ordinate resources and stay informed. [Using the technology, organisations can] invite everyone into the conversation to talk, message, share location information and exchange data regardless of network or device type.”

As mentioned, the focus of interest in this article is a specific part of the platform designed, in essence, to provide mission-/business-critical users with a broadband-enabled personal area network. Going into greater detail about this aspect, Russell says: “The concept revolves around the ability to connect groups of users using multiple bearers at the same time.

“We have an application – Tait PTToX [Push To Talk over X] – designed to be installed on a smart device. During a demonstration I gave in autumn of last year, I used PTToX to communicate from a ruggedised smartphone device over Wi-Fi and via an internet connection to our UK-hosted Tait AXIOM PTToX server. Cellular could also have been an alternative. The signal was then pushed out over LTE to one of our TMX450 unified vehicle devices, with minimal latency.”

Going into greater detail about the part which the TMX450 has to play in this, he continues: “The device contains a Linux operating system, which has a number of applications. For instance, its modular form includes long-range Bluetooth, dual SIM LTE modem as well as Ethernet and Wi-Fi connectivity. Traditional radio technology includes analogue, and DMR Tier 2 and Tier 3.

“With the signal sent, it’s then a matter of choosing the appropriate channel or talk group, depending on the user. Additional connectivity via the ‘PTToX Bridge Mode’ application links the TMX450 to traditional handheld radios on the ground, via the LMR [VHF or UHF] bearer.”

According to Russell, Tait anticipates that the solution will be rolled out in a variety of business contexts. One of the most obvious use-cases, however, is to help improve site-specific emergency services communications.

From control room to fireground

Going back to the subject of the Grenfell Tower disaster, it is clearly something which is very much on Russell’s mind, particularly when it comes to development of the technology described above. Indeed, he believes that if the solution had been available at the time, some of the issues around communications may have been lessened.

Having asked him to outline why this is the case, he begins by providing a general refresher on current fire and rescue service procedure, entirely outside of the context of the response to Grenfell. “UK fire and rescue services use a variety of different communications solutions during an incident,” he says.

“They currently leverage TETRA in the first instance, thereby allowing the control room to talk to the fire appliance on scene and vice versa. At the same time, a separate radio solution will likely be used on the fireground itself.

“The upshot of this is that the firefighters on the ground can’t easily communicate directly with the control room. There’s a fundamental disconnect, in other words.”

He continues: “In operational terms, this means that someone has to spend time monitoring the TETRA radio in the cab, writing down the information as it comes in. It then needs to be transferred to a third party, who will in turn deliver it to the appropriate person on the bridgehead.

“That information obviously must be understood in the first instance, transposed correctly and finally delivered accurately. At the same time, the recipient of the information must be accessible, which is not always necessarily the case on the fireground. This all takes valuable time.”

In contrast to this, the Tait solution’s ‘multiple bearer’ approach is designed to ensure a consistent communication chain at all points during an incident. At the same time, again according to Russell, deployment of the technology might also open up new opportunities for situational awareness while on scene.

Discussing this, he says: “Fundamentally, this part of the AXIOM concept enables those working in the control room to convey voice information via an LTE connection to the incident itself.

“This information is then re-broadcast from the command vehicle in real time, with – again – very little latency. In terms of the fireground, it would then be re-broadcast over the UHF bearer to both the firefighters on the ground and at the bridgehead.

“That being the case, it could also conceivably enable firefighters to receive information from the person actually reporting the incident. The member of the public in question could give incident information via the controller, as well as details about the location.”

As well as showcasing Tait AXIOM out and about at trade shows, Russell has also given presentations looking at the adoption of both new technology and attendant new ways of working on the part of emergency services.

Part of this presentation – titled The Shock of the New – examined organisational culture itself across public safety organisations in the UK, something which he believes will likely evolve and change.

He says: “What I’ve gathered from emergency services is that there’s always a weighing up of risk. At the same time, there is also an element of balancing that risk with generational changes of attitude towards the adoption of new technology. A deep, natural energy [within organisations] to say ‘Yes, we need to do this’.

“This [change in attitude] has to go hand in hand with fire and rescue services having a willingness to take on board the opportunity to drive the technology themselves. That often requires someone – an internal sponsor – to drive that area of work within particular organisations.”

In order to illustrate this, Russell uses the example of a UK fire and rescue service – East Sussex – which has worked closely with Tait to roll out new critical communications products within the operational environment. Rewinding back to February 2020, he discusses the role that “key sponsors” within that organisation played during the initial discussion and implementation of the company’s technology.

“One key part of the discussion was looking at the potential scope for how they might actually use the tech,” says Russell. “As in – ‘We’ve bought into this new digital technology. What else can we do with it apart from deployment purely on the fireground?’

“In response to that, we suggested a scenario where the control room guys could potentially talk to the incident command unit/breathing apparatus-wearer over LTE, as per what we’ve been discussing. They thought that it was a good idea, which in turn
enabled us to have the ‘art of the possible’ conversation.”

Following on from this exchange, Russell was able to go back to the engineers at Tait and feed the idea back to them as a “potentially interesting evolution of our portfolio”. This elegantly demonstrates not only the power of engagement at the user end, but also how that engagement might contribute to the overall development of the technology itself.

As well as being an appalling human tragedy, the Grenfell Tower fire will also likely stand as a key moment in the history of fire and rescue services worldwide, containing as it does important learning around both the use of technology and general operational procedure.

That being the case, manufacturers such as Tait have a crucial role to play in ushering in a safer tomorrow.To continue the conversation join us at Critical Communications Network - the new online community for the sector