Crisis comms

Toby Harris on the need for effective communications in emergency situations

Just a few weeks ago, Michael Dowden, the North Kensington London Fire Brigade Watch Manager, had a torrid time giving evidence to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Like all of those attending the fire on that dreadful night, I am sure he was doing all he could to save the lives of residents.

One thing he said, however, starkly illustrated the importance of emergency communications: “For me to facilitate and change a stay-put policy to a full evacuation was impossible.” The reason was that he could not communicate directly with the residents in the 20 floors above the fire. He didn’t have the people and it would take too long. I make no comment on the rightness or otherwise of the stay-put policy. The important point is the lack of a way of getting a message – whatever it might have been – to all the residents.

While the technology to do this exists, it is just not available in the UK. Tested successfully by the Cabinet Office five years ago, nothing seems to have happened since the trials. During the same period, it has been used regularly in Australia, the United States and the Netherlands. 

Australia’s Emergency Alert can send an SMS message to every mobile telephone in a tightly defined area. Precisely the same sort of scenario as the Grenfell fire was tested six years ago focused on the 37-storey Department of Justice building in the heart of Melbourne. They used the system’s mapping tool to draw a warning polygon over the building. This detected the presence of 5,736 mobile devices. When the alert was sent, it reached over 90% of those devices within twelve seconds and delivered the alert to people on every floor.

Such technology would undoubtedly have saved lives in Grenfell Tower. It could also have been used to reduce the panic and stampedes in Oxford Street last November as people responded to erroneous reports that gunshots had been fired. The Lords debate I am leading this week seeks to prod Ministers into introducing this facility in the UK and making it available to the emergency services. But I will also focus on other aspects of emergency communications.

The police, fire and ambulance services must have reliable communications between their control rooms and personnel in the field. This is currently delivered by a radio system known as Airwave, which has served the emergency services effectively in dealing with most operatinal situations in recent years. It now, however, needs upgrading and improving, in particular to better handle data in addition to voice communications.

In 2011, the Coalition government took a decision to replace Airwave with what is to be known as the Emergency Services Network (ESN). Unlike Airwave, the ESN will not have its own exclusive part of the radio spectrum and instead share it with one of the commercial networks, EE. This puts all of our communications eggs in one basket but also creates a single point of failure. Should the EE network go down, communications for the emergency services does so too. And we are all familiar with situations when the mobile network is overloaded and runs slow.

Less than two years ago, the National Audit Office looked at the proposals in detail. It described the ESN as “inherently high risk”, pointing out that such a system has not yet been used nationwide anywhere else. It warned that the proposals were “technically cutting edge”; and that at that time no suitable handheld or vehicle mounted devices existed that would work with the ESN. And concluded: “the programme has adopted a timeline for delivery that is very ambitious.”

No surprise then that the programme is running late. Existing Airwave contracts have had to be extended at a very high cost, and even those extended contracts will expire next year. A gap in the provision of emergency communications would be disastrous – these are genuinely matters of life and death. The government has a responsibility to all of us to get this right.

Lord Toby Harris is Chair of the Labour Peers Group and a member of the Joint Committee on National Security Strategy. He tweets @LordTobySays

Published 5th July 2018

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