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Former PAC chair Hillier raises emergency services comms concerns

David Bicknell Published 23 June 2017

MP questions Home Secretary over ESN timetable and asks what strategy is in place to ensure there is no gap in emergency services communication services between Airwave and ESN


Former Public Accounts Committee (PAC) chair Meg Hillier has raised concerns over the Home Office’s plans for the Emergency Services Network (ESN), writing to Home Secretary Amber Rudd over ESN’s timetable in replacing the existing Airwave contract.

Hillier, the MP for Hackney South & Shoreditch, who is putting herself up for re-election as PAC chair, said in her note to Rudd that the recent incidents in Manchester, London Bridge, Grenfell Tower and Finsbury Park “highlight the importance of our emergency services being able to communicate effectively in the event of an emergency.”

She asked Rudd when the new system will be implemented and asked what strategy is currently in place to ensure there is no gap in emergency services communication services as currently provided under Airwave, and the new ESN service where work is being undertaken by Motorola Solutions and EE, alongside delivery partner Kellogg Brown and Root and Home Office officials.

Motorola Solutions is responsible for the delivery of the user services contract, providing systems integration and public safety functionality. EE is required to provide an enhanced radio access service with nationwide coverage. Both organisations have made extensive investments in ESN, acquiring new technologies to make it a success, aware that the project is a showcase for their businesses.

Last year, Motorola acquired Airwave and also bought the Mobile Assets Communications System (MACS) from Cyfas Systems to enable it to provide a cloud based unified communications platform for control rooms, supporting critical control room operations such as dispatching and telephone call handling, and helping to ensure rapid emergency responses. It sees the MACS platform simplifying control room migration, reducing upgrade disruption and improving scalability.

For its part, EE recently showcased future mobile technologies with the potential to be used in the future to support ESN. They include mini mobile sites attached to a helium balloon to deliver wide area 4G mobile coverage where permanent sites have been damaged or in areas where there is no 4G coverage. EE is also considering using drones equipped with mobile base stations and antennas, and plans to deploy a fleet of “rapid response vehicles” to support ESN, keeping the service live during local site outages and essential maintenance.

In her letter to Rudd, Hillier said, “As you will recall the Public Accounts Committee raised concerns in November 2016 about the ambitious timetable for introducing the new system before the old system was obsolete.

“It revisited the project in February this year when it learnt that there would be a gap in the provision of the old system and the expected start date of the new system. The potential delay was then highlighted as several months and there were key milestones set out by the committee which the Home Office needed to meet to ensure continuity of coverage.”

Hillier also asked Rudd whether there was a plan of action for how ESN would work on the London Underground, the Tyne and Wear Metro and the Glasgow Metro, and whether the Home Office would consider mandating regions to sign up.

In a statement a Home Office spokesman said, "We are clear that we won't take any risks with public safety and there will be no gap in the emergency services' communications provision. The existing Airwave system will continue until transition on to the Emergency Services Network (ESN) is completed.

"Keeping people safe is our priority which is why we are delivering the world-leading ESN to support our police, fire and rescue and ambulance crews who work so hard protecting the public and saving lives.”

It is understood that the Home Office is working with TfL to install ESN on the London Underground in time to support the transition to the new network by the three emergency services in London.

Although the timetable for ESN has slipped by around nine months, the Home Office has signalled the first emergency services organisations should still transition onto ESN in mid-2018. Home Office officials pointed out that though the timescales are ambitious “no risk will be taken with public safety.” Home Office sources have pointed out that Australia is following the UK’s approach, and said the new network “will give at least as good or better coverage than Airwave, which has approximately 97% geographic coverage) by the time it’s finished being built.”

The Home Office has also promised that it will keep the PAC informed on ESN progress.

Some members of the ESN community have raised several points about ESN’s progress. In the wake of the recent terror attacks and the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower, they believe that the PAC may wish to reconvene early in the new Parliament to get further answers over the ESN timetable and on ensuring continuity of coverage.

They also believe the recent tender (on device-to device (D2D) communications for ESN) which stated that certain essential functionality was still “immature”, is an indicator that the Home Office is aware that ESN programme timescales are challenging, and, given the timetable's slippage, may now be unrealistic.

One ESN communications specialist said in his view, timescales to implement are too short to ensure the technical functionality of the new service will provide at least the same level of mission critical functionality (as Airwave), and although plans are in place to introduce similar mission critical services in Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology, the critical path is defined by standards and by industry and is outside of any particular project programme. He argues that these issues must be addressed urgently, as the consequences of losing any essential communications services are “unimaginable” for the emergency services and those that they protect, and if two services are required simultaneously then the costs must be budgeted well in advance.

Paul Ward, international sales director for radio communications infrastructure company Etelm said, “We understand that the current plan is to switch some public safety organisation over from Airwave to ESN as early as mid-2018. As the mission critical standards of LTE are still being standardised or are relatively immature, some existing services are unlikely to be available by that time.

“It is essential therefore to understand if the plan is to run both systems in parallel until equivalent and better services are guaranteed and what are the cost implications, or if certain functionality will be discontinued or restricted, what are the implications to the first responders and the public.”



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