ISITEP: enabling cross-border comms

ISITEP - the EU programme to establish Inter system Interoperability for TETRA-TETRAPOL networks - will improve how public safety agencies from different countries talk to each other when an incident demands co-ordination, explains Richard Martin

ISITEP – the EU programme to establish Inter system Interoperability for TETRA-TETRAPOL networks – will improve how public safety agencies from different countries talk to each other when an incident demands co-ordination, explains Richard Martin 

On August 21 2015 at 5:45pm a Moroccan man, Ayoub El Khazzani, attacked the Thalys train en route from Amsterdam to Paris. As he exited the toilet armed with an AKM assault rifle and other weapons he was restrained by passengers and there were no fatalities. The incident could have been much worse, as Khazzani had 270 rounds of ammunition, but his gun had jammed. The incident happened just over the border between Belgium and France. In this case the quick actions of the public prevented a bloodbath, but it highlights the international nature of the terrorism threat. 


Incidents such as the Thalys attack last August require close-cooperation between public safety organisations from neighbouring countries – Image copyright Belgian Federal Police 

This is just one use case in which European Union countries (and in particular the Schengen group where border controls were abolished) face challenges when emergencies or events straddle their borders. Police, fire or medical teams may need to work together to resolve or control the situation and, in some cases, work in a neighbouring country using their TETRA or TETRAPOL radios. There are technical, legal and operational issues to resolve in these situations and so frameworks need to be developed, agreed and put in place. 

The EU ISITEP programme is designed to address these problems and provide templates and technical solutions for international ISI implementations. 

The Framework 7 EU ISITEP programme
The ISITEP programme has been established with wide end user and manufacturer participation to develop the technical assets and the operational procedures for Public Protection and Disaster Recovery (PPDR) interoperability, and the consortium comprises 18 partners from 10 countries. ISITEP, which stands for Inter System Interoperability for TETRA-TETRAPOL Networks, runs for three years, with the €15 million project completing on August 31 2016. The objective of the project is to enable communication across borders between public safety agencies, enabling this in a very broad sense – not just technically, but also studying the operational implications of talking to a party from a different country, as well as the legal and language issues. 

Christian Bjerrum-Niese is Motorola Solutions’ representative on the ISITEP project. He led a symposium in CCW Barcelona in May 2015 where the project was presented by several end user and manufacturer consortium members. 

“We have come a long way in terms of technology development and this has been strongly aided by the fact that Motorola Solutions has a commercial contract driving a working ISI solution in parallel with the research study. We have multiple work streams that support each other, ensuring the programme will be a success. In addition, every partner in the consortium has a contract with the EU to undertake research work; some are doing normal product development of equipment such as ISI gateways alongside the research. It is important to note that the EU is funding the research, not product development.” 

The ISITEP programme provides technical and operational building blocks for any two nations to use as a foundation for their ISI operation, but they would still have to work through the detail of their specific implementation. A standardised model for processes and workflows will be based on an inventory of best practices within the consortium members. I asked Bjerrum-Niese who he thinks will be the likely adopters after Sweden and Norway. “We are seeing demand or interest for ISI from several regions within Europe. A number of nationwide TETRA operators in Europe have placed the order for ISI; further operators have optional implementation of ISI in their future deployment plans. We are now showing how the technical issues are being resolved with the Motorola [Solutions] networks. ISI will be matured and put in place in real operational networks. There are enhancements that could follow, but there will be an operational system in 2016,” he said. There are other countries keen to proceed once finance is in place. Motorola Solutions expects that its ISI solutions will be sold as options within terminals and networks to be activated as customers need it. “Motorola [Solutions] and Airbus have gateways ready for use.” 

Were there any issues that emerged after the start of the project? “When the work packages were constructed at the start of the programme, there was never any attention to how terminals would migrate across borders. Again, the Sweden/ Norway project has complemented ISITEP by working with the terminal vendors because they needed to provide a solution. So the three terminal manufacturers are working in collaboration to provide ISI software updates to enable network migration. This will be tested in operational trials in 2016”. 

In terms of other deliverables to be made available at the end of the programme, will there be a documentation set and a handbook? “Yes, there will be lessons learnt from the Sweden/Norway project; this can be considered as best practice and as the foundation for other countries planning ISI. This provides guidance on network planning and how to organise international talk groups, and the operational issues in terms of who is responsible for incident management in an international environment. Effectively a template for a two-party arrangement, this handbook is largely complete and will just need to be translated into local languages. Work on template legal agreements continues – these are to be published in 2016.” 

Are there meetings and workshops where interested parties can come along and learn about the project and results? “We are holding end user forums that are open, most recently in Stockholm at the end of September 2015. The next opportunity for presentations is CCW 2016 in Amsterdam, and other specific events to follow. There is a Norway-Sweden field trial in November 2016 and an ISITEP user forum in Q4 2016 [details to be announced]. In addition there is more info at” 

Developing and implementing ISI 
Belgium has borders with France, Holland, Germany and Luxembourg. It has 193 police zones, 33,000 local officers and 13,000 federal police. There are five local and international airports, as well as international train services with police on board from two countries. The headquarters of the EU, the European Parliament and NATO are in Brussels; the city therefore frequently hosts international conferences and events, with senior politicians and heads of state attending. 

In 2014 there were four two-day European summits, a Europe-Africa summit, visits from the presidents of the USA and China and a G7 meeting. There are several sports events that cross the borders. Trains carrying nuclear waste pass through Belgium, and the international transfer of criminals and suspects commonly takes place. 


Visits to Belgium by foreign dignitaries and their own security staff require good coordination between visitors and the local police force – Image xopyright Belgium Federal Police

Patrick Feys, directeur operaties of the Federale Politie (Belgian federal police), mentions that when senior visitors from other countries are accompanied by their own security staff, these officers will need to be able to communicate with Belgian police. When a motorcycle escort is used the communication must be over TETRA, as cell phones are not used by motorcycle police officers. The most flexible solution is to allow visitors landing at Brussels Airport to use their own TETRA terminals for speaking with their hosts on shared international radio groups. Today, foreign close protection services use their terminals in direct mode for their own communications needs, which compels them to request permission to use the related frequency and contact their Belgian police partners via cell phones. This is not a satisfactory solution, especially when a motorcycle escort is used. Motorcycle policemen cannot use a cell phone next to their TETRA terminal. 

German police have been requesting dedicated frequencies for when their officers are in Belgium and a trial is in the planning stage, so that German TETRA radios will be able to work inside Belgium and communicate with both Belgian and German talk groups, using the Belgian TETRA network; there will be a control link between Brussels and Berlin. Arrangements like this are key because they need to be in place before an actual event happens. 

The Belgian and French railway police work closely together, especially since the terror attack on the ‘Thalys’ Brussels-Paris high-speed train at the border of the two countries last August. The railway police from the two countries do not currently have an easy way to communicate. To work efficiently, Belgian railway police on a train in France should be able to talk to French railway police, French dispatch centres, as well as their home control centres in Belgium who will be able to follow them and know what they are doing. For direct mode communication on the train, TETRA can be used, but the Wi-Fi network on the train is also a potential communications channel on a separate device. Therefore they ideally need a bi-technological TETRA-TETRAPOL terminal to be able to seamlessly use both the Belgian and the French networks. 

The ISITEP programme has been progressing well, addressing both above mentioned examples by offering the opportunity to implement an ISI between Berlin and Brussels and by developing a first bi-technology terminal concept prototype. In terms of the Belgium/Germany project, this will be at a federal level to begin with. Connections to the local forces in Germany will come later. 

There remains a need to ‘sell’ ISITEP to governments and operators as there will be costs and work to be done. Issues such as terrorism, crime, and immigration are increasingly focusing minds on international security co-operation and the need for communication. 

The vision is to follow the German federal connection with other links, and in particular for mixed patrols on railways and highways. “But this vision is not in our hands. We need to bring it to a higher level and explain it to politicians in terms of the needs and benefits. This may take some time and the financial aspects are important,” Feys says. Manufacturers have their part to play; for example, Airbus Defence and Space is working on developments in TETRA to enable cell-phone-type roaming. This is complicated by the need for security – there needs to be clarity as to what a visiting radio can access when in the neighbouring country and still remain in contact with the home control centre. The neighbouring country also needs to be reassured that its security will not be impacted by connecting a radio from another nation. 

Feys feels that a change in culture is needed from concentration on technology, frequencies and devices to one in which the broader needs for widespread secure communications over borders are met. “The technology must be the servant, not the master. We have to invest in standards for this,” he adds. At a recent meeting in Stockholm, Sweden, it became clear that centralising communications is complex when there are not only many nations, but also multiple agencies in many of them. The Belgian situation is centralised, which helps, but the multiple international connections add complexity. Feys points to the problems with international football matches where police from the country of the visiting team may be travelling with the supporters and will need to communicate with the police in the host city. Belgium often provides a railway connection for these events, for example between France and Germany. 

Terrorism throws up other challenges, whereby there is a need for a rapid alert to be sent from the concerned national contact point to their counterparts in the surrounding countries. The problems here are more to do with politics rather than technology, as nations wish to retain their own structures and ways of working. 

The challenge of ISITEP is 70 per cent to do with processes, politics and law, and 30 per cent technology. “You can ask your suppliers to set up connections, but without the phone book you cannot use it,” Feys says. Pre-agreed international radio groups and contacts need to be set up in advance to enable cross-border operation. “For me, the interest has been to explain the needs of the user, so the technical teams can find solutions,” Feys adds. 

He continues: “This is a very interesting project. Brussels is a very realistic scenario for the project. A challenge is to test in a realistic situation – we can’t use a real event such as a European summit. Testing is therefore rather technical.” 

A more realistic test will be held in the spring of 2016. It will partly use operative networks, notably to carry out a multiple communications test on the railway between Brussels and Paris and Lille, controlled by the Belgian Federal Police in Brussels. 

The need for international co-ordination and communications between police and other public safety agencies in Belgium and the surrounding and visiting countries is both vital and complex. 

Marianne Storrosten is project manager at the Norwegian TETRA operator DNK. As a leader on the Sweden/Norway ISI project, she and her Swedish counterpart have been able to make a very significant contribution to the ISITEP programme. “We are the only two networks in the ISITEP project doing ISI now and for real. We work with the ISITEP user forums and work groups. ISITEP gives us an arena for discussing the project, and presenting what we have learnt. We have worked very closely with our end users, police, fire, medical, and customs. We can present the guidelines and the talk group structures we have developed. The systems we are developing must live for years,” Storrosten says. 

When we consider the dramatic challenges posed by terrorism and the recent migration of Syrian and other refugees into Europe, it is easy to see the need for effective international PPDR communications. Natural disasters such as floods add to this need. 

The technical and operational frameworks developed in the ISITEP programme can be applied by agencies and operators across Europe to develop, agree and implement cross-border secure and resilient communications systems for their PPDR resources. National secure communications such as TETRA will work together, and simplified applications will be available on smartphones linking up with them. 

The first ISI solutions exist today on a single company basis, with Motorola Solutions/Airbus Defence and Space interworking coming soon. The Norway-Sweden ISI system will be available from 2016 onwards. 

ISITEP will incorporate more manufacturers systems and lay down guidelines for the implementation of multinational ISI systems. 

Full information on the programme is available at: 

The original version of this feature stated that a German/Belgium interoperability trial was to be held in the winter of 2015/2016 – it has subsequently been brought to our attention that this is still in the planning stages and has yet to take place.