Online connectivity for frontline staff

4 mins read

Seamless 4G coverage is integral to safety critical communications, but many blue light services suffer from lack of 4G connectivity in their respective buildings, according to Colin Abrey of Nextivity.

The emergency services are swamped with data from the hundreds of thousands of incidents they respond to every year - in the year to June 21 there were 500k plus fire and rescue incidents recorded in the UK, according to a recent report from the Home Office.

Digital technologies like, facial recognition, EHR (electronic health record) and live video footage from drones and suchlike empower first response teams to quickly assess a situation end route to any given incident and effectively decide on the best course of action. Equally, blue light services personnel are facing increased levels of verbal and physical abuse, and this is driving the adoption of wearable tech, which also requires 4G coverage for live feeds.

Almost every police force in the UK now makes use of body-worn cameras, and with their rollout to circa 22k frontline officers in the Met police it is believed to be the largest. Said cameras allow officers on the beat to record incidents as and when needed and upload the generated content in real time or at the end of their shift (depending on circumstances). Not only does this permit swift decision making in the event of an emergency, it improves the personal safety of personnel and public, gives greater transparency to policing and offers the potential to reduce incidents of anti-social behaviour.

The quality of the footage captured at street level, however, is dependent on uninterrupted connectivity to a 4G network, with live streaming requiring a minimum network speed of 300-400kbps. In areas with a good mobile coverage, 4G networks can exceed 5Mbps upload speeds, which is sufficient bandwidth for streaming HD footage. The downside, however, is that these speeds are subject to multiple factors (tall buildings, network capacity etc) and may not be achieved at all inside many buildings because building materials interfere with cellular signal propagation.

Concurrently, the UK Government is in the process of upgrading its public safety comms network from Airwave’s Tetra service to 4G, LTE provided by EE, to permit the sharing of multimedia data. As a result of delays, however, caused primarily by the pandemic, service migration will not start in earnest until 2024 and the transfer of all UK emergency services, not anticipated until 2026. (source BTwatch).

There are also ambitious opportunities to radicalise communications further through the exploitation of 5G due to the lightning-fast speeds it offers and the wealth of tech it supports. Although this new public safety network, known as the ESN, is already supporting thousands of first line users and vehicles, seamless 4G coverage continues to be problematic, particularly in the emergency services own regional HQs and control rooms. Patchy indoor coverage in these instances is a serious problem for those responsible for co-ordinating first response teams or reviewing the footage generated by wearables and needs addressing as a matter of urgency, according to Ivor Nicholls, Sales Director at UCtel, a provider of Unified Communications and contact centre solutions to public and private sector organisations. “Whilst the scale of the ESN project is huge, with the Government pledging to build hundreds of new phone masts to assure safety critical communications across the UK, buildings with poor coverage to begin with will continue to have poor coverage, which is a major challenge that needs to be addressed.”

The frequency ranges used on the Airwave network have long transmission ranges, which is good from a coverage perspective as they are not as hampered by obstacles like steel, glass or concrete. The downside is that they cannot deliver the upload and download speeds needed for data-driven services. Mobile frequencies, especially 4G, which is the underpinning enabler to the ESN network, have a much shorter propagation range. Moreover, the signal quality of any mobile service immediately deteriorates when it is taken indoors. While this can be inconvenient for commercial services, it is catastrophic as far as health and safety is concerned as it makes co-ordinating an emergency much more challenging.

With these health and safety risks in mind a reasonable question is, who is responsible for assuring the levels of coverage needed are readily available? Whilst contingency has been made for coverage in key public buildings, there is currently no financial incentive ensure reliable in-building ESN in wider real estate, presenting property owners/managers with a dilemma.

Tier one premises will be able to overcome coverage challenges by implementing operator connected DAS or small cell, but what of the middleprise buildings, or indeed the hundreds of regional fire and police stations or subterranean A&E control rooms? Facilities Managers of such buildings have neither the experience nor the budgets needed for a high-end solution like DAS, even if the operators had the resource to support them.  Indeed, DAS would not be economically viable for these types of premises because they are just too small.

The only way to guarantee 4G coverage inside these buildings is by taking the outside network indoors using supplementary equipment. Deployment, however, isn’t as straightforward as it might seem on the surface because not all signal boosters are created equal - there are thousands of prohibited systems in use and the consequences of being caught can be serious. For a mobile repeater to be legally used in the UK it must meet stringent criteria stipulated by Ofcom; they must be network-specific, network safe, not interfere with other networks and dynamically power down in the event of a network conflict. One such system that does meet requirements is Cel-Fi by Nextivity.

Blue light services are on the frontline and work around the clock to keep the public safe. They must therefore always have seamless access to all information all the time, in real time, regardless of their location. Not least in their regional control rooms which are typically the starting point of all emergency communications. Securing full network coverage does not have to be an arduous, complex task. All you need is a reliable 4G signal and this is not hard to implement.

Author details: Colin Abrey is Vice President, Channel Sales for the EMEA region at Nextivity.