In the first instalment of this article (Issue 54), I discussed the comms landscape in general and highlighted the importance of treating comms (sig’s) as a defined team role. I also outlined the importance of having a comms plan and looked at:
- Why we communicate,
- What we communicate, and
- How we communicate, which was split into two parts.
- Part 1 focused on the language we use
- Part 2 is the physical medium, hardware and technology that we use, which is what I will dive into here in this article,
It is inevitable if you work within the security sector that at some point, you will have has a radio thrust in your direction for you to use as your primary form of communication. Yes, that’s right: your primary form of communication!
As the primary form communication, it means that this is the device that you will use to report into the Control Room, what you will use to see if your relief is on the way so you can go on your well-earned break, and your lifeline to call for help if you find yourself in a situation where you are being threatened or are in some other form of physical danger.
A useful and handy tool, right? So how much training were you given the first time it was handed to you? What explanation were you given about how well it works and how reliable it is? How much were you told about its limitations? What procedures were outlined about what to do if you press the button and you don’t get a response? What ‘lost comms’ systems were you briefed on? What alternative (back-up) methods were you told were in place if your primary comms failed?
I’d bet the keys to my car that 90% of people will not have been briefed on any of the above, and yet this one tool that may just save your life, and yet you have absolutely no idea how it works, or what to expect from it.
When was the last time you were handed a first aid kit and expected to know how to use it without the appropriate training? When was the last time you were expected to stand on the front-line without having been taught how to safely and legally restrain someone, should the need arise? When was the last time you were sent to do a security advance survey without being trained on what to look for and how to carry it out properly?
No wonder one of the things people always bemoan is comms! And the main reason for this is because they don’t know how it works. It isn’t their fault; it’s just that they’ve never had any meaningful training, and their expectations have never been managed.
So let’s start with some basics. Radio is a line of sight technology. In simple terms, if you can see it, you can talk to it! It’s a bit more complicated than that because radio waves at different frequencies behave in different ways and tend to bounce about all over the place. Therefore, the adage of ‘line of sight’ thing is more a rule of thumb than a hard and fast principle.
While this falls outside the purview of this article since this isn’t a technical course, we won’t focus any more on that aspect. But it does raise an important point of awareness: conventional radio technology, whether analogue or digital, has limitations and these limitations are governed, to a large extent, by the laws of physics.
Most radio networks are designed to cover a specific area, and with few exceptions, that coverage is limited to a fairly small footprint. Often this is sufficient. Why cover an area bigger than the one in which you are operating? But even within this bubble, there may well be areas where coverage is patchy. Therefore, it is important that these are identified and radio users made aware that they can expect to lose comms (a.k.a. “notspots”) when entering that specific zone.
However, the key is that: movement clears notspots! On a recent site coverage survey, we stopped in a corridor to do a comms check and … nothing. We tried several times but to no avail. I took one pace, yes just one pace, in a different direction and comms was restored. So remember this, often adjusting your position by just a small amount can make a difference.
But what if your operational area is larger? What if you want comms across a whole town or city? To implement a radio network of that size has challenges, both technical and commercial. Finding enough locations to site repeaters (a repeater is a ‘booster’ for a radio network, generally located at the top of a tall building) is a challenge and paying for them is an even bigger one! Radio networks need licences to operate. Increasingly, licences are hard to come by, especially in densely populated locations such as town and city centres. Where they are available, they are expensive, reinforcing the fact that to provide wide-area coverage in these circumstances is often simply not financially viable.
Fortunately, however, technology does advance, and for every problem, there is a solution! As I mentioned in the previous article, we now take it for granted that our smartphones will work pretty much wherever we go. Seldom do we stray into areas where coverage is insufficient to allow us to stay in contact with the outside world. With the advent of 5G, we are going to enjoy even better coverage, with faster speed than we’ve ever had before. We can take advantage of all of this to give us the radio coverage we’ve always wanted. By using the mobile data network, it is now possible to have a ‘radio’ network that covers not only a city but the whole country, indeed the whole world. It sounds too good to be true, but it is a reality.
Think of the mobile phone networks as one huge, interconnected repeater that we can access at will. We don’t own it. We don’t need to pay for licences. We have none of the headaches of maintaining it. That’s all done for us by the mobile network operators. But we can access it whenever and wherever we are. This is the reality today.
You will hear this reality referred to by a variety of different names: Network Radio, Push to Talk over Cellular (PoC), Push to Talk over Broadband (PTToB), LTE Radio, or simply Push to Talk (PTT) as some of the more common ones currently in use.
Indeed, this is what is replacing the TETRA based Airwave system currently used by the Bluelight and security services. The new Emergency Services Network (ESN) is based on a commercial PTT platform and accessed through the EE mobile network.
In addition to virtually limitless coverage, PTT also delivers a range of advanced features that were simply not possible. Or if they were possible, they were not practical to deploy, using conventional two-way radio technology.
Here are some examples:
- Lone worker protection
- Remote monitoring of audio and video
- Geo location through GPS
- Indoor localisation using BLE beacons
- Geo fencing generating alerts when entering or leaving a pre-defined area
- Dynamic group allocation
- Call recording for post-incident playback
- Push to Video for real-time situational awareness
A further advantage is that all of these capabilities can be deployed almost immediately. Devices can be configured and re-configured remotely, meaning that if anything needs to be changed or a feature added, it can be done in real-time. There will be no need to wait for someone to come to site with a laptop and a programming lead, as is the case with conventional radio. It is also relatively simple to interface this technology with existing radio networks, so you don’t need to throw away what you have now. You can simply enhance it with an LTE capability, where necessary.
The question always comes up about the reliability of the mobile phone network. There have been some high profile ‘outages’ in the recent past that have caused chaos for millions. But whilst single networks are prone to problems from time to time, when was the last time that all four of the leading UK mobile networks failed simultaneously? I’m open to being corrected here, but I think the answer is ‘never.’
I highlight this because to use the mobile data network, the devices that are deployed will obviously need to have a SIM card fitted. If that SIM card is tied to a single network, then yes, you are vulnerable. But here technology has advanced once again. There are now multi-network SIM cards, giving coverage across Vodafone, O2, EE and Three that are readily available. This means if one network goes down, you will automatically re-connect to one of the others.
However, this isn’t a panacea, although it comes close! At G6 we do a lot of work with National Trust properties across the UK, which by their very nature, tend to be in highly rural locations where mobile phone coverage cannot be guaranteed (at least not yet). In these more rural locations, we’re still deploying conventional radio solutions. But as mentioned above, technology exists for us to bridge both PTT and conventional radio, so it is foreseeable that the ‘meet & greet’ volunteers in the Visitor Centre will be using WiFi enable PTT devices. Using these, they can talk to the field workers on the margins of the estate, who themselves are using VHF handheld radios.
This is all possible right here and right now. If you haven’t yet explored the possibilities, I’d highly recommend that you do. Otherwise, you risk missing out on a world of improved operational capability and enhanced operator safety.
In the next article, I will be discussing more about communications planning, including what to consider when looking at contingencies and the role of the Operations or Control Room, in whatever form that may take in your comms plan.
consider when looking at contingencies, and we’ll also consider the role of the Operations or Control Room, in whatever form that may take, in your comms plan!
Communication Planning Part 2
By: Andy Clark
G6 Global has been delivering critical communications since 1999. Communications connects everything that we do, and we will find the most robust and appropriate solution to your communications needs. We recently partnered with Syops Solutions who specialise in delivering communications training that will raise your teams communications skills to the next level.