Emergency money talks

A high-tech digital communications system funded by PFI could provide a faster response to disasters. Melanie Tringham reports

Precious minutes can be wasted at the scene of disasters like plane crashes and road accidents with police, ambulance and fire crews from different areas trying to talk to each other to coordinate the rescue. They cannot talk to each other directly except through the police control room. And it only takes one call to jam up a radio frequency.

The problem rests with their radios: pre-war technology mobile radio equipment working on different frequencies for each police force and the ambulance and fire services.

The Home Office has finally admitted there is a problem. Its answer is the Public Safety Radio Communications Project (PSRCP). This will see a new national integrated data and voice radio system based on a new digital radio standard, Trans-European Trunked Radio (Tetra). If all goes to plan, the first stage of the network should be be operational by 2003.

PSRCP is important for several reasons. It brings the police and other emergency services up to date in the fight against high-tech crime, and will cut down on time taken to deal with a major incident.

It will also be the first time the Home Office has commissioned a technical system of this size from industry under the Private Finance Initiative, where responsibility for running the network will go to an outsider.

In the long term, the new network is expected to save money through greater efficiency and savings on replicated running costs. In the short term, the cost to the Home Office of £100m a year over 15 years will be more than the current system, and that is before the contractors have priced their risk into it.

As a contract for industry it promises a healthy regular income directly from the Home Office of £1.5bn and unrivalled experience in a new technology that can be exported.

Next week sees the culmination of months of research with the expected award of two project definition study (PDS) contracts lasting 15 months.

Two consortiums are bidding, led by Racal and BT. NTL, the former engineering subsidiary of the BBC now owned by Cabletel, was leading its own bid until October, but it has joined the Racal team.

The Racal consortium has seven members (Simoco International, the private mobile radio firm owned by Philips Electronics; Ericsson; Fluor Daniel; Smith System Engineering; NMRothschild and NTL) compared with BT’s four (TRW Systems Integration, Motorola and Nokia) operating under the name of Quadrant.

There are demanding requirements. The contractor will have to implement a massive infrastructure to provide a seamless national service for 43 police forces and, if successful, 43 ambulance services, 59 fire services and potentially room for partners such as Customs and Excise staff, the UKAEA, and even the RSPCA.

It means thousands of emergency personnel should be able to talk at one time over a digital frequency of between 380-400MHz.

Digital modulation techniques will allow four times as many channels on the same frequency as analogue. Forces at different ends of the country will use the same frequency, and there will be a special cross boundary channel for disasters that everyone can switch to.

The network is more secure because being digital it is more difficult to break into with a basic scanner. For high security, Tetra will allow advanced encryption techniques.

On trial

Tetra is undergoing trials in the Channel Islands for the States of Jersey police, with the help of Motorola. When Tetra goes to operational trials in March, it will only cover 250 police officers, well below its full capability.

Regardless, the Jersey police say it is exciting to work with. `Tetra has opened our eyes to what we can do,’ says Gary Buesnel, communication systems manager for the States of Jersey police. `It asks questions about the way police conduct their work.’

The trials have established that police can remotely download reports and tap into databases. This means the daily routine of police work could be transformed as less time would be spent in the office.

But undertaking the project as a commercial venture is risky. `We don’t know how many people are going to use it and who’s going to want it,’ says Peter Watson, sales director at BT.

Buesnel admits: `I don’t think the police forces are ready for Tetra. The technology will enable people to do things in different ways, and the police are not ready to make a fundamental change to their operations.’

Cost and lack of experience of the system have meant mainland police are being cautious.

The system will cost more. Data and voice units for Tetra will be expensive and the service more costly. But Buesnel says: `A lot of people who criticise the cost are looking at the hardware cost. They’re not evaluating what the system will do and the efficiency you achieve in police time.’

There will also be a big initial start-up cost for the winning consortium in setting up the backbone infrastructure of the network, against a comparatively low annual income of £100m.

But the big suppliers are expecting the risk will be worth it. The Home Office has already tabled the system’s inauguration in Lancashire in 1998. It will take up to 2003 to complete the nationwide network.