ESN for control rooms: business as usual?

Philip Mason gives an update on the transition of the UK's emergency services from the Airwave TETRA network to a LTE network provided by EE, with a focus on the implications for control rooms

Philip Mason gives an update on the transition of the UK’s emergency services from the Airwave TETRA network to a LTE network provided by EE, with a focus on the implications for control rooms


The Emergency Services Network has the potential to revolutise UK public safety communications through enabling high-bandwith applications

The UK emergency services’ imminent changeover from TETRA to LTE-based technology represents the most profound shift in British public sector communications in many years. Depending on your point of view, the UK government’s faith in as-yet not-fully-developed solutions is either a massive public safety gamble, or a visionary once in a generation act of future-proofing.

As those that have been following the project will know, Motorola Solutions, EE and Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) are providing systems integration and functionality, mobile services, and delivery partner services respectively.

Numerous questions have arisen since the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP) began. The National Audit Office, following consultation with a range of stakeholders including manufacturers and the emergency services themselves, has cast doubt on whether the system will be ready on time or on budget.

The onus is now on the emergency services to become operationally ready for the change, which – following a recently-announced delay of around three months – is pencilled to come online in early 2018. Central to this
will be the work carried out in emergency services control rooms.

Significant upgrade
Arguably the most pressing concern in terms of control room technology is how the emergency services are going to manage the network handover period, during which both TETRA and LTE will be in use. According to the Audit Commission report, the length of this period ranges from 15 months in the case of the North West (the first region to transition) to zero for the South West (the last to transition). 

Speaking at the British APCO Autumn Event, Steven Whatson, deputy director of the emergency services mobile communications programme at the Home Office, said that the ESN will be service-ready on 30 September 2017, with authority verification taking place between October and November. He added that end user organisations will not begin their transition onto the ESN before January 2018. However, the transition start date set as part of the main contract award (which took place in December 2015) was September 2017. 

 TETRA Today cannot verify reports from other media outlets that the North West’s transition has been delayed to March 2018, with the South East due to transition by April 2020. If this is correct then the transition timetable would be compressed by at least three months. 

The Home Office has detailed contingency plans in place and the government has extended all Airwave contracts to 31 December 2019. Should it be necessary to extend contracts beyond that point it has agreed a fixed monthly price for doing so.

A source close to the matter told TETRA Today that: “[The North West region is] saying [that] with their own internal processes of procurement there’s no way they can meet the transition timetable, so even if the system is ready end of next year it would still take them longer than it looks at the moment to transition.”

While speaking at the B-APCO autumn event North West region ESN programme director Damien Smethurst said: “I don’t care about the programme’s timescales. For me, it’s operational risk. If my officers don’t have confidence to use that device in an operational environment, in an emergency situation, then we don’t go live.”  

According to the Home Office’s technical lead on the project Jeremy Kemp, the ‘fairly significant’ upgrades to the Airwave network required to achieve the interworking will be ready by January next year. 

Speaking at the Emergency Services Show in September he said that Motorola Solutions’ sandbox environment for control room vendors is live and four vendors are attached to it, with one having demonstrated end-to-end group calls between their control room systems and the sandbox push to talk service and back again. Motorola Solutions has also launched the first phase of its network approval testing for control rooms, using the first release of its software.

One thing that will help control room vendors is that the first core specifications for ESN devices and the first design specifications for in-vehicle devices have been released, ensuring that they are no longer trying to pin the tail on a blurry, shape-changing donkey.

Progress so far
While concrete information about the progress of individual control room projects is somewhat thin on the ground, some UK emergency services organisations are starting to reveal details of what they’re putting in place. 

The Metropolitan Police for instance has employed Frequentis to modify its Integrated Communication
and Control System (ICCS) via the introduction of a universal radio gateway. This will allow Met control room staff to handle calls coming through over both Airwave and the ESN.

Peter Prater, key account manager at Frequentis, is the company’s liaison with the Metropolitan Police Service. He says: “The purpose of the ICCS is to allow a single operator to manage all of the communications resources at their disposal. That includes radio comms, telephony and, uniquely in terms of the Met, CCTV as well.”

 He continues: “The challenge facing us was to modify the ICCS to allow like for like functionality in both the TETRA Airwave and LTE ESN worlds. We assume that the same functionality is going to be offered by both – group calls, push to talk and so on – so the control room has to be ready for that.

 “The only other requirement is to be able to link ESN and Airwave talk groups and users together during the transition. Clearly people operating on the ESN will still need to talk to people on Airwave.”

Another British police force that has released specifics about planned new communications technology is North Wales. It (like the Met) has involved Frequentis; this time in the provision of a ‘holistic’ environment for call handlers themselves.

This system, the 3020LifeX, is currently being signed off ready for deployment late next year. Head of North Wales Force Communications Centre superintendent Alex Goss said: “One driver for the project was the changeover to the Emergency Services Network. Our current Frequentis ICCS needed a refresh anyway, and just by chance the ESN is planned to be in operation quite soon after our new kit is installed, because of the alliance work we have with Cheshire police. We actually started looking at the project about three years ago and have worked closely with Frequentis to design the functionality required in the Life X product.

“At the moment our ICCS brings in all telephony, and also deals with Airwave all on one interface. The new system will bring all communication platforms – 101, 999, social media, webchat and so on – into one platform on one screen, including our command and control system. At least that’s what we hope will happen. But there are lots of different ways you can do ESN; some forces are using dual terminals: one for normal usage and one for ESN-related functions.”

He continues: “We can clearly see the benefit of working with the technology, and that usefulness will only increase going forward. For instance, we already have a system in place where calls from specific locations in north Wales are delivered to local pods within the control centre.”

This technology, according to Goss, has enabled the force to split its control room up into different divisions corresponding to different parts of the service area. This in turn has allowed staff to develop specialisms and expertise based on geography and local need, rather than simply covering the whole of north Wales. 

Programme of austerity
Once operational the Emergency Services Network has the potential to revolutionise emergency services communications in the United Kingdom. With that in mind, why aren’t other countries pursuing blanket rollout 

of LTE to a rigid timeframe in quite the same way? The only other nations mounting a comparable project are South Korea and the United States. 

The answer to this question can be found in the UK’s ongoing programme of economic austerity, which has seen the public sector undergo a root and branch transformation following the coalition government’s election in 2010. Rightly or wrongly there is simply far less money available, and the estimation that the ESN will save the taxpayer £500 per device is a welcome saving.

There’s also the way in which Westminster tends to do business with the emergency services. Despite its parallel – palpable – concern with the needs of specific local communities, the future adoption of the Emergency Services Network is essentially a fait accompli on the part of the government. Again, this is by no means a criticism.

Chris Dreyfus-Gibson is part of PA Consulting Group, an organisation integral to the development of the ESN programme prior to the procurement contracts being issued, in particular assisting the UK Home Office with technical and procurement advice.

“In terms of issues, I still get the impression, certainly with police forces, that the changeover is viewed as quite a way away, and we don’t need to do anything yet,” he says. “That’s a little bit misguided, because now’s the time to start your project planning, think about the impact on ways of working, discuss device strategies, and understand what needs to happen in the long term. 

“Thinking specifically of control rooms, the emphasis is going to be around changing the way you work, because of the mobility opportunities ESN will bring. We’ll see situations where I won’t need to get on the radio to dispatch you to a low priority job because I can send the incident details straight to your mobile device. And that’s just the start. While critical voice will always be important, control rooms will become much more dependent on visual digital data.” 

He continues: “A lot of organisations - understandably - seem to be sticking with their ICCS suppliers because they’ve offered an ESN-compliant new version of what they’ve already got.  My encouragement is for organisations to start looking at what operating model they want to achieve, and then explore what their operational technology requirements are to enable this. That’s really the challenge.” 

There are other challenges too – not least the ways that LTE-based solutions will bring control room staff into contact with different types of data via the public, before the ESN is even implemented.

 One example of this is Capita’s 999EYE smartphone solution, which allows staff to view live incidents via a single-use URL. Another is eCall, which will require operators to interpret voice and data at the same time in relation to incidents involving automobiles. While still some way off – thanks in part to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s tardiness in providing the requisite guidance – it is on its way.

And so is the Emergency Services Network.