Improving public safety through technology

In this day and age, one of the most important tools against the terrorist threat is our technology. Ian Thompson, chief executive of British APCO, explains why and looks ahead to March’s annual conference

Almost a year ago, on the 22 March at the conclusion of our Annual Conference & Exhibition 2017, the elation of a successful and enjoyable event was tempered by news of the terrorist attack near the Houses of Parliament. At the time, I was keen to harness the momentum of the event and push on with new initiatives and ideas. I intended to write a short piece on social media to thank everybody who had been involved in our event in whatever way. I couldn’t ignore what had happened though.

This is part of the message we eventually sent out: “The events that took place in London as we were bringing BAPCO2017 to an end serve to bring public safety into sharp focus. Anything written today runs the risk of seeming trite when considered against those horrible incidents. How do you talk about improving public safety communications and IT when one event encapsulates everything we do and demonstrates the importance of the work? We are quite literally, asking people to put their lives on the line. The least we can do is give them the best possible tools to use and the support they need from all of us.”

If anybody were in any doubt that communications and technology is at the centre of everything our emergency and other services do in their daily work as well as during critical, major and terrorist incidents, the point was highlighted at the BAPCO event in Newcastle in November. Inspector Simon Davies, with colleagues from Greater Manchester Police (GMP) and the North West Counter Terrorism Unit (NW CTU) gave a presentation on their work as Airwave Tactical Advisors (Tac Ads) following the bombing of the Manchester Arena on 22 May which killed 22 people. The audience sat in near silence as the trio talked about the issues of the operation which lasted weeks, rather than the days most of us would think about. There was no doubt that communications were vital to all of those agencies involved and to ongoing public safety.

As we all know, there have been other incidents and terrorist attacks in the subsequent months. As some commentators put it this is the ‘new normal’ not seen since the height of the IRA attacks many years ago. Of course, it’s not only the UK that has suffered such incidents, with many countries also experiencing major incidents through attacks as well as natural disaster.

As important as providing the right equipment to allow responders to do their job, is providing the right systems and assistance to allow them to communicate. In this day and age that starts with the first person to report an incident, usually a member of the public, rather than after a control room has received a call and dispatched resources.

The ability to collect, interpret and share the information provided by a caller already at the scene can be vital in providing the best and most appropriate response to an incident. By harnessing the technology carried by most members of the public, emergency services can get ahead of the game in their response times and actions. Ask once, record properly and share as often as necessary has to be a requirement of really working together and providing the best response.

Emergency services communications
Some 20 years ago we faced similar issues in communicating, so the UK commenced work to provide the emergency services with a state of the art digital communications system. By moving away from the previous analogue systems the aim was to provide clear voice and data transmission as well as interoperability and interworking between the services - something which had never before been possible.

In the subsequent years, many of the benefits have been realised and there is certainly more closer working between the emergency services, assisted by the TETRA digital radio technology known in the UK as Airwave. The technology is the backbone of emergency services‘ communications systems across Europe and in many other parts of the world.

As we all know, technology marches on. As terrorist methods evolve, so must our response and the tools we provide to our responders. The public expect their services to be using at least the same technology as them and the best available. Broadband is the new expectation. 4G and even 5G are the new buzzwords along with LTE (Long Term Evolution). It’s no longer enough just to talk to pass information. it’s vital to be able to share data and to share it immediately. Public safety communications and technology is following what is available to the public and to business. There is a move away from the ‘old’ radio systems to the ‘new’ communication systems.

The UK is at the forefront of implementing the new technology. The government’s Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP) will deliver a new Emergency Services Network (ESN) using the same technology we are all familiar with for our mobile phones and based on a commercial, rather than a bespoke, network provided by a commercial partner. The United States is using similar technology in its FirstNet project. South Korea is also providing a nationwide solution and will be using the technology at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Both projects are attending the BAPCO Annual Conference & Exhibition at the Ricoh Arena, Coventry on the 20-21 March to provide delegates with an overview and an update.

As ever, public sector technology projects are not without their issues. The ESMCP is currently reviewing its plans on how and when it rolls out. There may be delays, there will certainly be amendments to the schedule, but whatever happens, we at BAPCO agree it’s the right technology and we remain fully behind the project and all of those involved in delivering it.

It’s not just the emergency services who respond to incidents who need to communicate and to share information. It’s no longer the traditional 3 Blue Light responders who deal with everything. It’s important to have the right people in the right place at the right time with the best information, whoever they are, or whichever badge or uniform they wear. Some will be from other agencies such as the Coastguard or Highways England, others will be volunteers such as our Search & Rescue organisations. All are vitally important to providing a service and protecting public safety.

Annual conference and exhibition
BAPCO works in partnerships to improve public safety through technology. As a not for profit association we are open to all with an interest in public safety. Our members come from users and across the commercial sector. Membership is free for those working in the public sector public safety arena. There are very reasonable charges for commercial memberships which also bring a number of benefits such as attendance at our events and discounted exhibition costs.

BAPCO runs three events per year in order to connect and inform our industry. Our largest event is our Annual Conference and Exhibition which this year takes place at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry on the 20-21 March. The event will be opened by Gordon Shipley, ESN Programme Director at the Home Office who will give delegates a programme update. Later sessions include insight from the USA FirstNet programme by Mike Poth, CEO of FirstNet and a presentation on cyber security following the international WannaCry attack which affected the NHS and many other organisations last year. Each day is rounded off by a case study presentation. On Tuesday 20 March we have a presentation on the Smiler Crash at Alton Towers and on Wednesday 21 we close the event with a session by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Wayne Brown on the Grenfell Tower fire.

In between the sessions there is time to view the exhibition and visit the many stands from key suppliers involved in providing communications and IT to the public safety sector. Networking and the exchange of ideas is a key part of BAPCO. Whether you meet in the Members’ Lounge or come to the Gala Dinner, you are sure to make new connections and come away with something to think about and time well spent.

We may never stop those who seek to disrupt our world and try to achieve their aims through acts of terrorism but we owe it to those involved in preventing such attacks and those who deal with the aftermath to give them the very best tools available. In this day and age one of the most important of those tools is our technology. We should never stop working to improve and to share the results to improve public safety.

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