HC 1456 Home Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Airwave

1.0 About Airwave

1.1 Airwave designed, built and runs the Airwave network, which provides critical voice and data communications to organisations that keep the public safe—the police, fire and ambulance services, local authorities, health, utilities and transport providers.

1.2 The Airwave network was purpose designed and built to meet the exacting high standards that are required by the emergency services. This means that it is totally secure, covers 99.9% of Great Britain and is interoperable, which means that members of different emergency services from across the country can communicate with one another.

1.3 In addition to running the Airwave network, Airwave helps the emergency services to plan their communications and to maintain systems in the most testing circumstances.

2.0 Executive Summary

2.1 Effective policing requires a secure, reliable, interoperable and scalable national emergency communications service. This was particularly important during the August 2011 riots because of the rapidly escalating situation and the large number of officers that needed to be deployed in London from around the country.

2.2 The network is designed to offer the same levels of service both day-to-day and during major events, planned or unplanned and with the ability to adapt with speed. Despite unprecedented levels of police activity in London, Manchester and Birmingham over the period of civil unrest, communications were maintained throughout without any form of disruption. Airwave’s experience of supporting the emergency services, together with the technical expertise of its highly specialised engineers and the network’s resilient design, meant that the communications service continued to work to the high levels expected of it, with no disruption despite the 100% increase in radio traffic.

2.3 In London, the Metropolitan Police and the 25 cross-border forces that under mutual aid, descended on London to support their operation, were all able to communicate effectively with each other, due to Airwave’s single standard telephony system that is used universally across the country.

3.0 Airwave and Police Deployment at the August 2011 Riots

3.1 Access to secure, robust and immediate information is essential to successful policing. It is particularly important during large scale disturbances to ensure that all officers understand the situations they are facing and allow instructions to be passed down the chain of command.

3.2 Airwave’s role is to ensure that the emergency services always have access to the communications they need. During the riots, a highly specialised team worked around the clock to ensure that the Airwave network allowed constant communication and that all the emergency services could effectively manage their information.

3.3 In the build-up to the Olympic and Paralympic Games (London 2012) the London network has an extra 100 paired channels (2 x 2.5MHz) spectrum capacity, meaning that the 16,000 police in London during the riots all had access to communications. To supplement this, Airwave put incident management plans into place to ensure that communications were maintained throughout the disturbances. This extra capacity will not be available after London 2012 and the spectrum capacity in London for the emergency and public safety services will return to the levels available in 2010, potentially making responses of this nature less feasible.

3.4 The emergency services understood the importance of good communications to their response to the riots. Nick Gargan, Chief Executive of the NPIA said:

“The network itself coped very well with the increased usage and capacity issues of moving vast numbers of police officers to disorder locations. In the London area, the average number of police officers on duty in a night was about 2,000 and the network was able to cope with a total of 16,000 officers, many of whom came from other forces thus showing the true interoperability capabilities of the Airwave service. We believe this was a great example of partnership working between the police service and Airwave in very trying circumstances.”

4.0 Activity on 9 August

4.1 As soon as trouble broke out in Tottenham, Airwave’s Network Management Centre registered the increased emergency service activity in the area and moved into “incident management mode”—an incident manager and incident coordinator are put in place from senior management to call in additional engineers and others from around the business if needed.

4.2 Airwave’s staff supported the emergency services during the riots by working with the police and other users to ensure the network capacity was managed for the optimum usage in the specific areas it was required as the incidents developed, in real time. Separate teams supported the police, fire and ambulance services and specialist engineers were on standby. The engineers were both dealing with difficulties as soon as they occurred, and were able to make instant changes to the network, boosting capacity as soon as it was needed. For example, air-to-ground capacity was enhanced to allow five police aircraft to remain in contact, rather than the one or two usually flying.

4.3 A conference call line was opened, meaning that the emergency and public safety services users could instantly contact Airwave technical and customer support teams for advice on network management and to resolve technical issues. The emergency services also used this to keep in touch with one another about communications issues, which allowed quick exchanges of information and immediate reactions to fast moving events.

4.4 In the days after the riots, Airwave’s standard system of constant network monitoring was enhanced, meaning that any further outbreaks of trouble could be responded to quickly.

5.0 Network Capacity

5.1 The number of police on the streets during the disorder led to unprecedented traffic on the Airwave network. The Airwave network is built to withstand 20% surges in traffic, however during the riots traffic on the network increased by more than 100%, from two million calls on 2 August to four million on 9 August.

5.2 The Airwave network was able to handle this unprecedented upsurge in traffic around the Greater London area, thanks to the additional capacity installed to cater for the heavy emergency service presence at the London 2012 Games. This additional capacity was added as part of a network retune earlier this year, facilitated by the free issue of additional temporary radio spectrum, but will revert to 2010 levels in 2013, after the 2012 Games.

6.0 Policing Techniques

6.1 During this period of civil unrest and despite unprecedented pressure, the network remained fully operational because of new Airwave developed monitoring tools which have been in place since the beginning of 2011. The proactive monitoring technology is known as Insite, and it shows Airwave and the police real time call traffic levels, incident and coverage data. This was used during the riots to manage police officers and their communications.

6.2 Insite was particularly important during the riots as the quickly changing situation and the deployment of 25 different police forces in London meant that there was little time for briefing and limited local knowledge. It allowed the police forces to quickly and efficiently identify inefficient use of the network, showing where capacity could be freed up and reused in other areas.

6.3 Insite data was also used by Airwave’s teams to show which areas were likely to suffer congestion before this occurred, allowing pre-emptive action. This allowed constant network availability to be maintained and meant that the emergency services were not distracted from their core tasks by the need to manage communications.

6.4 Emergency Communications at Major Incidents

6.4.1The Airwave network was purpose built for the emergency services, both in day-to-day use and during major incidents. Specific features which enable this are described below.

6.5 Coverage

6.5.1The Airwave network is contractually required to cover 99.9% of Great Britain. This level of coverage was requested by the emergency services when the network was built; before this there were large black spots in central London caused by the “shadows” of large buildings.

6.5.2The civil unrest in August mainly took place in town centres where the police are regularly on patrol. This level of coverage means that the police will always be able to communicate, no matter where in the country disturbances occur.

6.6 Interoperability

6.6.1Major incidents require joint working between the emergency services and between different forces, which in turn requires a common communications platform. Lady Justice Hallett’s 7/7 inquest report noted the communications difficulties faced by some first responders to the bombings because communications, before Airwave’s introduction, were not shared. Airwave’s service is fully interoperable across the Emergency Services.

6.6.2This relatively recent development was particularly important in the civil unrest in August: in London on the night of August 9, thousands of additional officers from 25 different police forces bolstered Metropolitan Police operations under mutual aid. In these circumstances it is vital that all members of the emergency services use the same communications platform and have sufficient spectrum capacity to allow co-operation and an efficient chain of command. Without the use of one standard communications system, these cross-border forces would have been unable to communicate effectively with each other. Also there are no additional costs and prolonged set up times for re-retraining and familiarisation that would be experienced if different forces used different systems.

6.7 National Roaming and Officer Deployment

6.7.1The deployment of officers from outside London was possible because standard Airwave equipment and procedures are used across the country. Before Airwave’s introduction, officers working outside of their forces’ areas had to be issued with a second radio, which was difficult to facilitate quickly.

6.8 Security

6.8.1The analogue radios used before Airwave’s introduction could be easily eavesdropped. This allowed sensitive surveillance details to be overheard and troublemakers to have advanced warning of operations. To combat this, Airwave communications are fully encrypted and cannot be scanned.

6.9 Resilience

6.9.1 Critical communications systems must be reliable. This was ensured through the Airwave network’s highly resilient construction (including a complete shadow network which can take over should the primary network face difficulties), and a large team of highly specialised engineers who maintain the network and respond swiftly to any difficulties.

6.9.2 Because the Airwave network stands alone from any consumer networks, in the event of mass mobile use or indeed a Government ordered shut down of mobile operators, the emergency services’ communications would remain in full working order.

7.0 Lessons Learned

7.1 Further to Airwave’s robust response during the London riots, with an increased police presence at the Notting Hill Carnival of 5,000 officers, Airwave resumed “business as usual” operations as one million people took to the streets in West London over the August Bank Holiday weekend.

7.2 As a result of these testing circumstances, Airwave is confident in its experience and expertise to ensure a robust and effective police response to the significantly increased usage at next year’s 2012 Games.

7.3 It is worth noting that the police response to the London riots has been managed successfully with the increased pre-London 2012 levels of capacity and spectrum. Post London 2012, as the spectrum and capacity is removed from emergency and public safety service use, Airwave is concerned that unprecedented public order incidents of a similarly large scale, such as those seen this August, will place an unmanageable risk to the communications systems required to protect the general public.

September 2011

Prepared 22nd December 2011