The new Emergency Services Network will help the police, fire and rescue, and ambulance services to do their job better and more efficiently, as well as support them in their vital role of protecting the public and saving lives. It will also deliver much better value for money for the taxpayer.
The Home Office-led Emergency Services Network (ESN) describes itself as a capable, flexible and cost effective communication system for the three emergency services. The new network will replace the existing Airwave mobile radio system currently used by blue light services in England, Scotland and Wales.
ESN will be delivered using mobile network operator EE’s commercial network, which is the largest 4G mobile network in Great Britain. When ESN goes live, that network will reach 92 percent of the population, rising to 97 percent geographic coverage of Great Britain through the creation of more sites in rural and remote areas.
The economic case for ESN seems compelling. Following transition the new network will save the emergency services around £1m every day. The benefits are not just financial either, but also include improvements in public safety and operational gains. For example, mobile data services will help the emergency services work more efficiently through greater use of video and digital technologies.
The new network is due to go live by late 2017, starting in the North West of England. All of the emergency services are scheduled to move over to ESN by the end of 2019
Making the new Emergency Services Network happen is a complex and challenging task and is being led by the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP), which is based in the Home office. The programme is working in partnership with EE, who are providing the enhanced network over which ESN will operate; Motorola, who are responsible for providing user services; and KBR who are the programme’s delivery partner. Here’s a quick look at some of the main elements necessary for ESN to work effectively and the progress made.
The promise for ESN has always been that it will deliver coverage that equals or is better than that provided by the existing Airwave network. Given the two systems use different technology and ESN is also providing a broadband-speed data service where Airwave was strictly voice-only there are bound to be local variations in how that coverage is provided. An exact like-for-like comparison just isn’t really possible – the two systems work in different ways.
What ESN does aim to deliver is an extensive and quality 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) coverage, including voice and broadband data services to users in almost all settings. That includes being able to use the new network in vehicles on major and minor roads and outdoors and indoors via hand portable devices. The service also needs to be available in specific road and rail tunnels, as well as rail stations both above and below ground. In addition, helicopters and other emergency service aircraft up to 12,000ft require access, as do users on marine craft out to the 12 nautical mile limit.
The radio mast infrastructure provided to do this is principally the EE network. The Home Office will also be procuring additional radio masts in rural and remote areas to extend coverage in areas where there is no commercial network coverage at the moment, in order to match current Airwave coverage.
In total this means just over 700 additional radio masts, most of which will be built by EE, with one third of them being delivered by the Home Office itself through the Extended Area Services or ‘EAS’ project.
The locations for these 700 new masts have been identified and surveyed and both EE and the Home Office are working on acquiring and building the sites.
Simon Frumkin, EE’s Managing Director of ESN, explains, “Our work to deliver the 4G network for ESN is on track, with more than 100 sites being upgraded to 4G every single week. We’re working closely with end user organisations to ensure that they’re up to speed on the progress of the network rollout, and we’re working together to identify all the ways in which this high-capacity 4G network will enhance day-to-day operations for the emergency services.”
The Home Office received bids for the acquire, design and build or ‘ADB’ for EAS in early August. The winning bidder will acquire sites; negotiate with landowners and undertake planning applications; design and build the infrastructure; connecting up the sites; and testing. This work will support both the EAS project itself and ESN’s air-to ground project.
Of course the EE network and EAS network will need to be joined up, and a key element is making sure that EE’s radio plan is optimised to integrate with EAS sites, and that coverage is reviewed with users.
Building the infrastructure to support the new ESN is obviously vital, but that doesn’t mean that installations should or could ride roughshod over national and local sensitivities. In May, the Home Office agreed a Joint Accord with National Parks England to establish the ESN infrastructure in National Parks, while recognising the unique landscape assets, which the parks represent.
The two organisations will work closely throughout the project to ensure that during the planning and execution of the appropriate works, the parks are protected and that any detrimental effects are minimised. The support of National Parks England is crucial to the success of the project.
ESMCP’s Air-to-Ground project itself is working with existing site operators to identify opportunities to install ground equipment via ‘site share’ arrangements. The requirements for air devices themselves are being developed with user organisations, which in turn will lead to their procurement and installation, via a phased roll-out.
ESMCP has also developed a close working relationship with Transport for London to make sure ESN is available in the sub-surface areas of London Underground in time for the London Group’s transition from Airwave to ESN, which is scheduled to begin late next year. The key elements of the plan are for ESN in stations to use 4G access points connected to the WiFi infrastructure, and in tunnels ESN will use base stations connected to the existing ‘leaky feeder’ infrastructure. For their part, EE will provide the access equipment to connect to their core and TfL will install and maintain equipment.
Industry uses the jargon ‘hand held devices’ but in reality these devices will simply be smartphones, and much like the ones most of us already own. There will be some differences though. Smartphones used on ESN will typically be tougher than your average iPhone or Samsung in order to survive the rough and tumble of emergency services work, and will have specialist apps including a ‘Push-To-Talk’ feature and a group call function, and an emergency button in its familiar location on the top of the device. These are not just future promises either but applications and functions that Motorola, with responsibility for user services, already have working on their test-bed.
Although the three emergency services and others will be responsible for procuring their own equipment, the Devices Project within ESMCP will also be responsible for various elements. The project will make sure all devices and accessories meet the business needs of users, as well as making sure that ESN devices are approved for use on the network.
ESN is engaging with stakeholders through workshops to ensure all device requirements are understood and shared with suppliers to encourage development and innovation. The Devices Project is also working to make sure legacy equipment can be utilised and integrated into ESN solutions, for example, vehicle mobile data terminals being tethered to an ESN Device to use the new network.
Phil Jefferson, Vice President of Sales and Service for UK and Ireland for Motorola Solutions, said, “Motorola Solutions is working collaboratively with the other programme partners to deliver the ESN. Progress on key functionality we are providing is well under way, such as demonstrating the push-to-talk capability over LTE, as well as implementing the network approval testing system where third-party suppliers and developers can apply for certification to provide their solutions to users on the network.
“We are excited about our role in providing a broadband-based emergency services network that users from across all public safety agencies can take advantage of with access to new data capabilities.”
The programme is also looking at setting up a Dynamic Purchasing System (DPS), which is more flexible than a traditional ‘framework agreement’ commonly used in the public sector and it differs in two fundamental ways. First it’s not restricted to a four-year life span, and second it has to be run as a completely electronic process. However, the emergency services are not mandated to use the DPS and can still use their own existing commercial relationships for procuring ESN approved devices if this suits them best.
To keep ESN users up-to-date, ESMCP will make sure briefing documents are available that focus on several key areas, including the availability of potential devices, options for vehicle communications to include a simple ‘like for like’ solution and how devices, accessories and managed services can be procured using the Dynamic Purchasing System.
All the indications are that the programme for ESN to go live in 2017 is on track. That doesn’t mean that every emergency service around the country will automatically transfer on to ESN at that time, but rather that they will steadily transition over in regions, starting in the north-west, with all users completely off Airwave by December 2019. The programme says this is a testing but achievable timescale that recognises the practical work that needs to be undertaken by the emergency services to achieve this.
From purchasing the right devices to converting vehicles and upgrading control rooms, having the right infrastructure in place to make the most of this network will be a challenge, but one that, if successful, will create a communications network that reflects the modern reality of how our emergency services operate.
Words: Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme, Home Office
The Emergency Services Network will be on Stand S61 at The Emergency Services Show 2016 from 21-22 September at the NEC Arena in Birmingham.