HomeMobile EuropeExplosive consequences

    Explosive consequences


    Ahead of the TETRA World Congress, held in Copenhagen from 24-27 November, Ranko Pinter, market information manager, TETRA Association, warns of the twin dangers to the UK Fire Service of increased cost and decreased operational efficiency if it chooses to adopt different digital radio technology to their counterparts in the police.

    Interoperability — in the context of this article — put simply means “the ability of public safety personnel to communicate by radio with staff from other agencies, on demand and in real time”. The form of interoperability that involves more than one network operator is also referred to as roaming.

    UK Disasters

    Interoperability, or lack of it, is a major hurdle for emergency services to carry out fast and effective rescue and relief, be it an everyday road traffic accident or a major disaster. The importance of interoperability between the mobile radio communication systems of different emergency services in disaster situations is well documented.

    In his paper entitled: UK Disasters And Emergency Service Communications1, Ronald Hewlett, from the UK Home Office, looks at the three major disasters in the UK in the last two decades: the Kings Cross underground fire; the Clapham Junction railway accident; and the Hillsborough football stadium disaster. Communication systems at those disasters were relatively simple, with single and dual frequency analogue radio channels without any form of priority access or no/limited linking [interoperability] between systems.

    The inquiries that followed these disasters identified emergency service communications as a problem and recommended that:
     “The London Fire Brigade and British Transport Police radio equipment shall be made compatible,” (Kings Cross);

    “The emergency services shall improve the communications between them to ensure, in particular, that the declaration of a major incident by any service is immediately passed by a dedicated phone line to all other services and acted on by them,” (Clapham);

    There shall be “liaison and lines of communication between police, fire and ambulance services,” (Hillsborough)

    US experience

    An equally, if not more dramatic example, of what happens with fragmented emergency services communication comes from the United States. In his paper entitled: Emergency Communications: The Quest for Interoperability in the United States and Europe2, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger writes:

    “Late in the morning of April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two sixteen-year-old students, entered Columbine High School [Colorado US] and started a shooting spree that would leave fifteen people dead, including Harris and Klebold, and dozens of others wounded…Yet as it turned out, the biggest challenge on that Tuesday afternoon was not battling the two attackers…The biggest challenge was coordinating heavily armed and ready-to-fire police forces from half a dozen sheriff’s offices and twenty area police departments, forty-six ambulances, and two helicopters from twelve fire and EMS [Emergency Services] agencies, as well as personnel from a number of state and federal agencies. Coordination was difficult not primarily because of turf wars or lack of crisis management…The real challenge was simpler-and much more serious. Responders from the various agencies had no communications system that would permit them to communicate with each other. Agencies used their own radio systems, which were incompatible with those of others. With more and more agencies arriving on the scene, even the few pragmatic ways of communication that had been established, like sharing radios, deteriorated rapidly. Cellular phones offered no alternative, as hundreds of journalists rushed to their phones and overloaded the phone network. Within the first hour of the operation, the Jefferson County, Colorado, dispatch center lost access to the local command post because the radio links were jammed…Yet the communications breakdown was to be expected. Analysis of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and the standoff between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, in 1993, in which nearly 100 people died, all pointed to interagency communications as one of the weakest links in emergency management…Public safety agencies have used radio communications systems for many decades. So far, however, most of these systems have been limited in reach and have enabled communication within a particular group or agency, but not across agencies. A group of firefighters, for example, can talk among themselves over their radio, but not with paramedics or law enforcement officers, and sometimes not even with fellow firefighters from a neighboring town or county. This severely curtails the utility of radio communications, especially in situations that demand large-scale immediate interagency communication and coordination.”

    Europe leads the way

    The question now is whether the emergency services have learned the lessons from these — and the more recent and shocking terrorist attacks on the Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon? There is little doubt that the majority of EU countries, including Belgium, Finland, France and The Netherlands have learnt the lesson. While upgrading their analogue systems to digital they have, at the same time, moved away from the dedicated systems for each of the services — with little or no interoperability — towards a single, shared, integrated and fully interoperable emergency communication system.  In case of Belgium, Finland and the Netherlands, the chosen technology is the ETSI standard TETRA, while in France it is Tetrapol, the proprietary technology from EADS.

    Britain lags behind

    When it comes to interoperability, Britain regretfully lags behind. Despite a significant investment into Airwave — the new digital radio communication system for the police, based on TETRA, the fire service has so far failed to join it, even though TETRA was designed — and has been proven in operation — to be capable of meeting the needs of fire services in other European countries and capable of solving the problems highlighted by the UK and US case studies above. The UK fire service is in the process of preparing a tender and anticipating the receipt of proposals based on variety of technological solutions. One of the technologies that has been actively promoted to the service is Tetrapol and there is an interesting parallel between what happened to police mobile communication in Europe and what would be the impact on interoperability between the police and fire in case the technology selected by the fire service is different to the one used by Airwave.

    Cross-border in Europe

    During the 1990s, the European Commission made a considerable investment into TETRA through a financial contribution to the ETSI budget. That was intended to ensure the development of a digital mobile communication technology that could provide an effective Europe-wide cross-border communication between the law-enforcement agencies. There is little doubt that the TETRA standard was anticipated to provide the same Europe-wide roaming for the police and other emergency services that the GSM standard was providing to private cellular users. However, the decision of France to adopt the proprietary French technology for its law-enforcement agencies, instead of the European Standard TETRA, was a body blow to the European Commission’s plan to have a single communication technology across all EU countries. Consequently, it has created a major problem for all the police forces bordering the country with the Tetrapol system.


    In order to address this problem of interoperability between police forces in Europe — having two incompatible technologies instead of having a single common one across the continent — the Working Group of the Police Cooperation Council3 set up a Working Party (WP) which comprised commercial and technical experts of the PCC, TETRA and Tetrapol. After two days of deliberations, the Working Party came to a conclusion that the only two solutions that would enable TETRA and Tetrapol users to roam Europe-wide were either to have two terminals — TETRA and Tetrapol — and switch between them when they move from coverage of one system into another; or to have a dual-mode TETRA-Tetrapol terminal. A further disadvantage of having two systems highlighted by the WP was the lack of direct terminal-to-terminal operation — invaluable for close cooperation between the emergency services at the scene of an incident. Voice interconnect of two or more users from different systems via their respective control systems — available even with the old analogue systems for as long as users are in their home network — was not considered to meet the communication objectives set up by the WP.

    Findings of the WP

    Both of the above solutions were considered by technical and commercial experts in the WP to be economically non-viable and, while some lower-cost options were considered — such as using specially designed cross-repeaters and fixed mobile acting as despatcher stations — they all provided only partial solutions for specific and geographically well-defined border activities. In addition, most of these would be low-volume products requiring specialised technical expertise with resulting high cost and high maintenance. The ultimate indictment of the Tetrapol claim was that cellular (mobile telephony) was also listed by the WP as another fallback communication option, despite the fact that it could not meet the operational needs of the European law-enforcement agencies. The reason cellular was included on the list was simply because it offered the required Europe-wide roaming — the result of GSM being the single European standard.

    Interoperability in Britain

    The above example provides a useful reminder of the possible consequences of interoperability, should the fire service in Britain select a technology different to the one used by the Airwave. In addition to the terminal solution which — as revealed by the Working Party of the PCC — would involve police and fire having to carry around two terminals, or have dual-mode ones (with both alternatives ruled out as commercially/ operationally non-viable), there would be an additional requirement for a roll-out of the second network nationwide. And all this for a service that requires only a fraction of the network capacity compared to the police!


    The price that the European Community will have to pay for failing to adopt a single communication standard for cross-border police mobile communication will be both in the additional cost of their public safety systems, and in their reduced operational effectiveness — especially in the border areas. At present, the UK police and fire services that use analogue FM share some of the same UHF frequencies, which provides them with interoperability. If the fire service selects technology that is different to the one used by the Airwave system, the cost to the UK public will either be in the additional cost, or in the degraded operational effectiveness of the emergency service. Or, most likely, in both.

    1.  Presented at the Emergency Telecommunications Workshop held at ETSI Sophia Antipolis, France between 26-27 February 2002
    2.  BCSIA Discussion Paper 2002-7, ESDP Discussion Paper ESDP-2002-03, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, March 2002
    3.  Police Cooperation Council Working Group