When a disaster strikes, one of the most important tools is reliable communication between the various responding agencies.
In the main centres of South Africa, the communications network used by the South African Police Service (SAPS) and disaster management agencies is based on a technology called terrestrial trunked radio (Tetra). It is a European system designed for use by government agencies and emergency services for public safety networks.
A trunked radio system uses a digital control channel to automatically assign frequency channels to groups of users. In a half-duplex land mobile radio network, a group of users with portable two-way radios communicate over a single shared radio channel, with one user talking at a time.
These systems typically have access to multiple channels, so multiple groups in the same area can communicate. Trunked radio systems are an advanced alternative to conventional systems in which the channel selection is done manually. In a conventional system, before use the group must decide on which channel to use, and manually switch all the radios to that channel. There is nothing to prevent multiple groups in the same area from choosing the same channel, causing conflicts. In a trunked system, the channel selection process is performed automatically.
In March 2011, the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) published a study by the African Centre for Disaster Studies at the North West University (NWU) evaluating the preparedness of national, provincial and local disaster management authorities should a major catastrophe occur.
One of the recommendations was that the information management and communication system must include the establishment of communication links, which will enable the receipt, transmission and dissemination of information between those likely to be affected by disaster risks as well as other role-players and stakeholders involved in disaster risk management.
In this regard, the design of the system must take into account the lack of technology infrastructure in areas and communities most at risk, as well as telephone system failures during disasters.
While the Tetra system has improved the situation to some extent and appears to work well in the SAPS environment, there are many gaps in other areas because of the use of older analogue systems and a variety of digital systems such as digital radio mondiale (DRM), and the Icom Digital Advanced System (IDAS). Some recent events clearly pointed to major problems.
During a simulated disaster management exercise where a plane crash was simulated near OR Tambo airport, several participating organisations could not communicate with each other. A more serious case was the fire at the Bank of Lisbon building in the centre of Johannesburg where firemen from different organisations could not talk with each other and had to resort to the use of cellphones.
More recently, in Mozambique, the same problems hampered relieve operations in Beira where disparate systems required disaster relief organisation to resort to satellite phones with the end result that the satellite system was overloaded and rendered ineffective.
The rapid development of new technology is also not helpful. The United Kingdom, which has a well-established Tetra network, now faces a total overhaul because the system is no longer meeting the fast-changing requirements for an effective disaster communication network.
For some time now, there has been speculation about the future mobile radio networks, given the emergence of long-term evolution (LTE) in several parts of the world, including private LTE networks in China, the Middle East and Africa, along with nationwide networks, like Red Compartida in Mexico. The United States has affirmed its commitment to rolling out its nationwide FirstNet LTE network, as AT&T secured a 25-year contract to build and maintain the network.
In 2015, The UK announced that it would build a nationwide LTE Emergency Services Network, replacing the incumbent nationwide Tetra (Airwave) network – one of the largest private operators of public-safety radio which was completed in 2005.
All first-responder police, fire and ambulance services in the UK had migrated to the Tetra network by 2010. Tetra continued to attract renewal contracts when it was opened to other user groups including the Ministry of Defence (MOD), the Highways Agency and utility repair teams.
The Airwave network has also been extended to the London Underground. However, it appears that implementation of an LTE network in the UK has been delayed and not expected to be rolled out until 2021.
As LTE becomes more established as a technology that proves it can meet the specific needs of critical voice communication requirements for emergency services, it is likely to enjoy more traction.
US public-private partnership
FirstNet is a nationwide wireless broadband network for first responders in the US being built and deployed through a first-of-its-kind public-private partnership between the federal government and AT&T. The First Responder Network Authority is the federal entity charged with overseeing the creation and delivery of the FirstNet network. Housed within the Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the agency’s role is to ensure AT&T delivers on the terms of its contract and creates a network that meets the needs of public safety now and into the future.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks brought to the forefront the many communication challenges that first responders face during emergencies and disasters. The 9/11 Commission Report, which identified gaps in emergency communications, recommended a nationwide network.
All 50 states, five US territories and Washington, DC, have “opted in” to FirstNet, meaning each has accepted its individual state plan detailing how the network will be deployed in their state/territory. The First Responder Network Authority’s public-private partnership with AT&T provides first responders with immediate access to mission-critical capabilities over the FirstNet network. This includes priority and pre-emption features that give first responders their own “fast lane” on the public safety network to communicate and share information during emergencies, large events, or other situations when commercial networks could become congested.
Though LTE is known by the public as 4G, the dominant standard for commercial cellular systems, LTE can also serve the purpose of complementing narrowband land mobile radio systems to offer much higher data throughput at certain hot spots and/or wider areas of first responders’ interest.
The US FirstNet appears to be the ideal option for South Africa, bringing together all involved in disaster response on one high-speed broadband network with built-in resilience and back-up. There is, of course, new technology to be considered. Should South Africa wait for 5G or 6G? Not a recommended scenario given that the need is now and LTE has achieved maturity.