Philip Mason looks at how critical communications systems are helping to mitigate the effects of major public safety incidents

Of all the challenges faced by public safety critical communications operatives, arguably the most daunting are those arising during major disasters.

Potential issues in these scenarios are as many and varied as the different environments in which the incidents themselves could take place. This could mean anything from issues around the propagation of the signal itself (for instance, during a mass casualty incident taking place down a mine) to – as with the state-wide 2017 Californian wildfires – the sheer scale of the affected area.

Disaster recovery is therefore one of the most fascinating areas to focus on for a magazine such as Critical Communications Today.

Prioritisation within the network
Karim El Malki is the CEO of Athonet, a company which works with public safety organisations across the globe to supply permanent and temporary LTE solutions, with the latter often deployed into disaster zones. This involves – for instance, via its PriMo Cube product – the use of ruggedised macro cells, facilitating both voice and data across often remote, coverage-poor locations.

Speaking of the system’s initial deployment following the ‘Emilia’ earthquakes which took place in Northern Italy in 2012, he says: “The primary requirement on the part of the region’s civil protection agency was an application for high-reliability fixed and mobile HD video around the town of Mirandola, which was one of the hardest-hit locations.

“This was to stop people entering the evacuated areas and stealing items which had been left behind when they left their houses and shops. The agency had also launched a new head-worn video system for its volunteers, footage which [had to be streamed] in real time because a lot of them didn’t know the area and therefore had to be directed during the rescue process.

“The agency was particularly taken with this, primarily because they didn’t expect to have access to video and audio with a negligible amount of latency. They could literally tell someone to look up or turn left in real time.”

4G coverage of around seven square miles was achieved through the use of a single PriMo Cube cell positioned on top of one of the few local schools left standing following the 6.1/5.8 magnitude tremors. The unit comprised everything required for the network – including “the radio, the core and the applications” – with spectrum provided to the civil protection agency by the Italian government. The agency’s command centre was able to record and analyse the images via the use of an LTE router.

Prioritisation was created within both the core and radio networks to provide the required service level to particular applications (such as video), or specific users and calls. When it came to non-critical voice, SIM cards were used within the devices to create a hierarchy of users, with commanders at the top.

In full control
According to El Malki, the Athonet system was developed with the company having spotted a gap in the market when it came to small-scale deployment within particular verticals such as public safety. This primarily involved rethinking the core network software, simplifying the deployment process for the benefit of end-users who, more than likely, would be IT rather than telecom mobile communications specialists.

Expanding on this in relation to both Mirandola and subsequent deployments, El Malki says: “We wanted users to be able to fully control the system themselves, which meant enabling it to run on off-the-shelf ‘small’ hardware such as micro-servers, tablets and smartphones, as well as providing a web-based management system. That also enabled the solution to be more portable.

“Thinking about the earthquake scenario in particular, we knew that we wouldn’t have engineers on scene, which meant that the civil protection IT team had to feel they were able to act independently. They had to be able to switch it on, configure it and make sure that it worked.

“We also wanted to make it as low-power as possible, because the response to emergencies usually involves generators. The whole point was keeping the cost within the enterprise range.”

Returning to the subject of voice, El Malki says the company is now “working hard” to bring the product in line with TETRA when it comes to mission-critical push-to-talk. This – as anyone familiar with the sector will know – is something which has become a major area of focus for public safety agencies, which have started to see LTE as not just an on-site fall-back for narrowband, but its eventual replacement.

“Since 2012, we’ve been working heavily on the products to introduce the new features which have come up in the [mission-critical LTE] standards. We already incorporate elements from 3GPP releases 13 and 14, and we’ve been involved in the ETSI LTE mission-critical push-to-talk interoperability plug tests, which took place in June last year.”

According to El Malki, Athonet products also support LTE Broadcast (LTE-B), a feature enabling content to be sent to multiple users simultaneously.

Wrestling with LTE
Another, much more high profile, organisation wrestling with the move from TETRA to LTE is the UK government, which is currently in the midst of rolling-out its much-discussed public safety narrowband replacement, the Emergency Services Network. (click here for an update on how the project is progressing, as delivered by the Home Office’s Stephen Webb at BAPCO 2018 in March).

As is well known, ESN coverage will be provided by EE through the use of its commercial network, with absolute priority guaranteed to the emergency services as a core part of the contract. At the same time, the operator is also contracted to provide support on the ground in the event of emergency coverage being required.

Discussing the process in the event of a fault or an outage to the system, EE consultant engineer Rich Templeman says: “The end-users report it to [user services provider] Motorola Solutions in the first instance, who triage it and – if it’s an EE issue – bring it to us. We then engage with our managed service partners such as Ericsson, passing anything found back to Motorola, who then liaise once again with the end-users. There’s a high level of accountability taken by all teams – it’s an extremely dynamic process.”

Speaking in regard to the – extremely unlikely – event of a complete site failover, he said: “We can relocate our Bristol-based technology operations centre to other offices we have around the country, for instance in Cardiff. The worst-case scenario if the Bristol campus is out for the long term is that we relocate to our sister site in Hatfield. In that situation, we would be back up and monitoring both the commercial network and ESN very quickly.”

As indicated, as a core part of the project, EE has also developed a fleet of mobile solutions which can be rolled out in the event of an outage or if remote coverage is required. These ‘rapid-response vehicles’ have the capability to provide a choice of 800 and 1,800Mhz, depending on whether on-scene emergency services require extra coverage, capacity or both.

With this in mind, the company is currently trying to expand its understanding of UK emergency services operations, focusing in particular on how these assets might be deployed. According to Templeman, this has been accomplished through a series of exercises, focusing both on ‘planned events’ such as London’s massive Notting Hill Carnival, as well as anticipated blue-light response to mass-casualty incidents.

Emergency Services Network core supplier EE has been examining coverage requirements around massive planned events, such as the Notting Hill Carnival

Speaking of the work that has been carried out with user groups to find out what they need on the ground, he says: “We’ve been inviting the emergency services to provide us with different hypothetical and real scenarios, which we can then plan for in advance in terms of radio coverage and the deployment of resources such as rapid-response vehicles. These are often based on incidents that have already happened, such as the terrorist attacks that took place in the UK last year.

“A good illustration of the work we’ve been doing with users is the marauding terrorist firearms attack exercise we attended at the Galleries, which is a shopping centre in Bristol. We focused on questions such as where the forward control point would need to be positioned, as well as assets that would need to be deployed to the site.”

As well as measures to provide essential coverage in emergency situations, EE is also able to take action if a disaster has the potential to affect the operation of the network itself. The most likely scenario in relation to this is an inevitable, massive upturn in the use which would take place following, say, one of the terrorist incidents mentioned above.

Discussing EE’s ability to effectively throttle commercial users’ access to 4G in this situation, EE consultant designer John Faulkner says: “It is possible in radio terms that a tower can become so busy it runs out of steam, or in a sense goes deaf. This occurs because the CPU load has gone through the roof trying to work out who is a high priority and who isn’t.

“To combat this, all towers broadcast a set of ‘flags’ identifying particular access classes according to types of SIM card. This in essence is the tower saying, ‘If you’re not on the list, don’t even try to signal me.’

“If things get really bad, we’ve included a protection mechanism which will automatically start barring commercial customers on a random basis, although they will still have access to 2G, 3G, and will likely have 4G coverage from a different, overlapping 4G site. It’s no good having ARP [allocation and retention priority]/QCI [quality of service class identifier] priorities if the site can’t listen to them or process them.”

As indicated above, ESN already has 3GPP prioritisation parameters ARP and QCI baked into its business-as-usual operations, allowing primacy to all emergency services users in any given situation.

Putting the public in the picture
When disaster strikes, an obvious priority is that emergency services personnel are able to communicate with each other in the most effective manner possible. This could be through the use of two-way radio, or as will be the case going into the future, LTE, which will also offer benefits such as video footage streamed from the scene.

At the same time, however, it’s also important to make sure the public know what’s going on, and to offer them the best advice on how they can stay safe. Needless to say, this is something which has become considerably easier in recent years with the wholesale adoption of smart devices by the population at large.

Going back to the Emilia earthquake, an auxiliary use of the Athonet technology was to provide five months of Wi-Fi access to those stranded in tent camps near the scene. This crucially enabled people to communicate with family and friends at a particularly vulnerable time in their lives.

Another solution which can be used to inform the public is ‘multi-modal’ messaging and critical event management platform Everbridge. Built on numerous globally dispersed data centres, the service is delivered at the coalface via individual MNOs and internet providers, thereby guaranteeing redundancy and resilience.

The company’s ‘director of customer success’ Meg Lovell says: “Agencies have incorporated Everbridge in order to co-ordinate response teams in particular areas.

“For instance, it’s been used to send notifications to vulnerable people to ask if they need assistance during an evacuation. If they respond ‘yes’ – or don’t respond at all – they become high priority. If they say ‘no’, the authorities know they’re OK and can divert resources elsewhere.”

According to Lovell, a recent event during which the tool was used to move the public themselves was the Californian wildfires. This involved the staging of a timed evacuation, again based on location and need, to avoid creating chaos during a massively high-pressure situation.

“We were used pretty extensively in southern California by counties which were literally in the line of fire,” she says. “The idea was to stage-out an evacuation notice, allowing people to leave in an orderly fashion.

“What you don’t want to do in that situation is send a notification to the entire municipality, firstly because you’ll be reaching people who are perfectly safe and worrying them. Also, if you did it all in one go, you’d congest the roads, meaning that no-one could get out and the emergency services couldn’t get in. Again, you want to look after your most vulnerable people first.”

The Everbridge solution was used during the recent Californian wildfires


According to Lovell, a textbook example of how not to handle a mass-evacuation situation occurred in January when residents of Hawaii were informed by the island’s Emergency Management Agency that a ballistic missile attack had been launched against it at the height of tensions between the US and North Korea.

As it turned out, the operative responsible for sending out the alert had simply mistaken an exercise for the beginning of the end of the world. This was only rectified 38 – very long – minutes later when officials finally sent out a follow-up message saying the whole thing was a mistake.

“The system in Hawaii was so rigid, they couldn’t immediately retract the message and stop the broadcast,” says Lovell. “As a result, a huge amount of unnecessary distress was caused, with people running down into parking garages and families cowering in bath tubs. Others, as I saw on social media, elected to have a beer and say goodbye to the world. The system in question was not built by Everbridge.”

Moving back to the subject of mobilisation of the emergency services on the front line, Lovell says the system is useful but only up to a point. Speaking about the possibility of issuing instructions to those on the ground, she states: “I always encourage our customers to plan for failure, such as in situations where on-site digital radios are being overloaded through increased traffic.

“In that instance we’re able to send out push notifications to an officer’s telephone, issuing instructions such as to discontinue all non-essential radio communication.”

At a time when the world appears to be becoming ever more dangerous, coherent, workable disaster recovery plans are more important than ever. Sophisticated critical digital comms are playing their part in this effort.

Author: Philip Mason