Handling comms during major events

Large and high-profile events require a great deal of planning if the safety of attendees and VIPs is to be guaranteed, and communications have a key role to play. Sam Fenwick has the details

No-one expects to die at a music festival; yet on 24 July 2010, 21 people did – their ribcages crushed from overcrowding. The incident took place at the Love Parade festival in Duisburg, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany and occurred thanks to a deadly combination of tight enclosed surroundings, a T-junction, a sudden surge of people wanting to reach the festival, and questionable crowd-control tactics.

Cameron O’Neill, Riedel Communications’ director – APAC, says when people talk about critical comms in an event context, they tend to “jump to presidential motorcades and papal visits, but anything can become critical in minutes”.

“The thing that frustrates me the most is that communications is not ‘sexy’,” he adds, “so it’s the last thing on event organisers’ minds – they tend to focus on the stage, the lights, video walls, subwoofers, catering, the talent. It’s often only once they’ve blown their budget [that] they realise they’ve got a lot of people they need to talk to each other and they have no frequency plans and are stuck using licence-free radios. While they have their place, if you allow yourself to fall into that, you’re setting yourself up to fail; 99 times out of 100, you’ll be fine, but if something does go wrong, people may die and your reputation will be in tatters.”

O’Neill says one of the first things to start looking at is the fleet map – which sets out who needs to speak to whom. Then it’s a case of looking at spectrum and frequencies. Eric Davalo, head of strategic development at Secure Land Communications at Airbus, adds that this is also important as it helps get a sense of how much radio network capacity will be required and the locations where it will be most required when operational models are defined.

O’Neill explains that the most appropriate technology varies from country to country, mainly due to spectrum availability. For example, TETRA works well for events in Germany, as spectrum is available and people are used to using it, but over in Australia, 25KHz channels are hard to get, so Riedel tends to opt for DMR. Similarly, he says: “In Japan it’s very difficult to get anything done, transmission has to be digital – if you want to use TETRA, you’re completely out of luck. This is why early planning is critical.” He is working on a bid for a project in Tokyo and “it was only when we went in-depth” that these restrictions became clear. To him, this highlights the importance of local intelligence – “sometimes different regions in the same country have different requirements”. O’Neill also highlights the influence of cultural differences, which determine whether communication is a free-for-all, structured/top-down, or somewhere in between. For example, he’s heard that at some events in China, radios may as well have been ‘one-way’ rather than two-way, as they tended to be used by managers/supervisors to speak to their workers and not the other way around.

O’Neill explains that the timescales and lead times vary significantly depending on the scale of the event – for example, communications for events on the scale of the Olympic Games need to be arranged a year away from the event (with planning beginning two to three years beforehand). The main reason for this long timeframe is the logistics involved; test events start about a year (or in the case of winter games, two years) before the main event, and also all equipment going to an Olympic venue needs to be delivered to a distribution centre first before going to the final destination. By way of comparison, a G7 or G20 summit will need the communications to be more or less finalised six to eight months prior to the event in question.

Davalo says backhaul has to be planned well in advance as it can’t be changed easily, and typically one-off events don’t have enough access to fixed-line backhaul, requiring the additional use of microwave links or possibly even satellite links. He adds that all of Airbus’s large events customers also obtain compact and rapidly deployable tactical radio kits that can be deployed if there is a need for additional capacity.

Freeing up frequencies
Both Davalo and O’Neill highlight the need to have the host country’s telecommunications regulator on hand to monitor the spectrum and make sure those who may be unwittingly, or in some cases deliberately, causing interference are swiftly dealt with. Davalo adds that it is all too easy for those seeking to disrupt events to install radio jammers in advance.

The potential disruption can be considerable – O’Neill gives the example of an event that was hosted by John Cleese (a famous British actor and comedian and the co-founder of Monty Python), where a news crew showed up with its own radio equipment. Shortly afterwards, the audience started hearing a newscaster rather than their host. “These things happen and you’ll never find them on your own,” he adds.

Given the risks, it is important to make sure all wireless equipment is tested and tagged (regardless of whether or not it is operating on licensed or licence-exempt frequencies), and then enforce the rule that only tagged equipment is used. One strong advocate of this approach is John Dundas, consultant and director at Dundastech, who helped organise communications for the European Championships in Glasgow last year and for the Rio Olympics. He also recommends the use of back-to-back/direct mode operation (DMO) where possible to reduce the load on the network.

“I know of large performing centres that do thousands of events, but when they do an event that has high levels of security, they forget about the impact it can have,” says O’Neill. “For example, a dignitary will turn up and a vehicle will turn [up] and [jam] all the comms they don’t know about; you can have the best frequency plan in the world, but it’s no good when the Secret Service jams everything.

“Government security teams are usually aware of the need to co-ordinate frequency use with the event. The real danger comes when you have people who are not used to working in that environment – for example, at pop concerts, some of the VIPs may have their own close protection teams, who may be used to working in their own ‘bubble’ – there’s then often a ‘Why should I change? You should change because we all have a job to do’ conversation.”

Getting the right spectrum and making sure that people aren’t using equipment on the wrong frequencies is only part of the story. During the event, network resources have to be managed carefully, and Davalo says that from Airbus’s perspective, this occurs at two different levels. The first consists of such measures as giving certain calls/users priority, combining talkgroups and restricting the use of individual calls and short data service (SDS) messages to free up capacity. The second level takes place on a large scale and involves Airbus’s customers having a number of predefined communication plans. They can then switch automatically to the one that is most appropriate to the load on the network, and Davalo says this functionality has been developed by Airbus on top of the TETRA standard as part of its Tactilon Management tool.

Training isn’t just for athletes…
“Training is key,” says Davalo. “In many cases you of course have professionals, but you also have organisations that are not so well trained in the use of two-way radios and don’t use them on a daily basis – to prevent them from using their radios in a way that really impacts on the network’s available capacity, you have to make sure they receive training.” He adds this needs to cover not just normal operations, but how to communicate during complex situations, as inexperienced users have a tendency to use many different talkgroups during emergencies, which ties up valuable network resources.

O’Neill adds that one quirk of the largest sport events is that because it can be around 40 years before they are hosted by the same country, there is no retained experience.

“Some people opt for a pyramid approach to distribution – the radio supplier will give out a certain number of headsets to large groups, who will then distribute them to their own teams. The problem with this is by the time it gets down to the individual users, they often have no idea how to identify which channel they’re on or how to make sure they’re on the right one.” In contrast, O’Neill says Riedel makes sure to get those skilled in the use of the communications equipment as close to the end-users as possible, giving each of them a 30-second briefing – which “saves so much time and effort”. Another common trick of the trade is to use different coloured electrical tape on different groups of handsets to show which user groups they are configured for. O’Neill adds that “these days, the difference in cost between display and non-display handhelds is so low, it makes sense to opt for display models, as they just make life so much easier when it comes to troubleshooting”.

O’Neill gives an example that highlights the importance of the integrated approach and having the right fleet map. “We recently carried out a large upgrade for an [event organiser/venue] that connected all the user groups. It took a lot of time and expense and everyone was wondering why we did it. Then the show was about to start, but there was a child trapped in a folding chair. Fortunately, an usher saw what has going on and contacted the [operations team] to tell them not to start the show. They also called the security team, who were able to free the child. If we hadn’t done that integration, the show would have started, the child would be trapped when it was pitch-black and would have probably started screaming, and they would have had to start over again. That would have cost a fortune, as everyone in the audience would have asked for a refund. Simply put, making sure the right people can talk to each other is how you prevent incidents from happening.”

Large-scale events often justify the presence of engineers from the manufacturer supplying the equipment, and Davalo highlights the need to obtain the necessary security clearances for them to access the sites, should they need to install extra equipment for additional capacity or adjust that which is already there. “When we look at the feedback from our customers, it was one of the main points they raised.”

On a different note, O’Neill says: “There is no reason these days to have a single wireless comms solution, you could easily have a TETRA system for the security team, a hardwired system for most of the operations team, and an analogue two-way radio system for those people who need to hear music at the exact moment it’s played. Unlike the past, today there’s no limitations that prevent you from combining different technologies.”

What about latency in such a scenario? O’Neill says it depends on the type of technologies and the gateway that is being used – he notes that DECT-based comms offer 35-40ms latency and that voice over IP (VoIP) tends to be the main gateway technology of choice, but issues with VoIP packet buffer delay tends to add 60-80ms of delay. He adds that it hinges on the user’s needs – for example, if they are carrying out military fire control, in charge of a firework display or trying to tie musical elements together, they are better served with back-to-back analogue radios.

O’Neill finds that latency concerns tend to be used so that people can justify procuring and using a single system, when it is better to consider what is best for each group of users and, when working out the initial fleet map, indicate which comms are mission-critical and most latency-sensitive.

Speaking of multiple technologies, Davalo says during a large event in China, the public safety agencies had access to both a TETRA network and a dedicated LTE network, and by the end of the event most of the users were on TETRA as they found it to be more suitable, given its ability to support a huge amount of voice traffic.

Boosting situational awareness
Moving away from voice, O’Neill highlights location-tracking, which can help in situations where someone’s headset is broken – a runner can then be sent to give them a replacement. Naturally, there is also nothing like being able to know who is close to an incident when planning a response. Davalo notes that while in-building location systems are increasingly used, they are still far from common and he attributes this to a lack of a unified approach, and “while there are many beacon-based solutions, it’s always an ad-hoc solution”.

CCTV cameras in conjunction with video analytics can be used to boost situational awareness and O’Neill adds that fixed networks have more than enough bandwidth to move broadcast-quality video around in real time, allowing “you to track who is doing what and spot the signs that an incident is about to happen”. He says that Riedel is also deploying some other technologies (such as meshed data networks) that also increase the ability to move video around an event.

“All our customers are using real-time video from drones to increase their situational awareness, while more and more people are entering into predefined agreements with fixed CCTV networks,” says Airbus’s Davalo. “There are many cases where our customers have deployed ad-hoc video networks, instead of fixed networks, moving video on a daily basis so that they can use the best locations as the event evolves, and this needs wireless connection for video streams.

“The main limiting factor today when it comes to using video analytics on a large scale to improve situational awareness for event organisers is GDPR rules,” he adds. “It’s very different in China, where all kinds of analytics can be used fully embedded in their operational processes and they can very quickly identify if someone is a potential issue on a massive scale. Because we can’t do this in Europe, the focus there is more on the identification of abnormal behaviour, and this kind of functionality is something Airbus has developed, particularly for use in airports.”

From what we’ve heard, you should start planning early, make sure that you reserve enough of your budget for a fit-for-purpose communications system, engage the help of the local telecoms regulator, avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to comms, enforce a test and tag policy, and make sure that your network(s) have the ability to dynamically alter their operating parameters in response to high demand on their resources. With those measures in place, you’ll be well on your way to running a successful event.