Interoperability in the 'Apple Isle'

By Jonathan Nally
Monday, 25 July, 2016

Interoperability in the 'Apple Isle'

Tasmania’s emergency services interoperability gateway will soon be boosted with a new common dispatch system.

Tasmania’s remote population centres and sometimes rugged terrain can present significant challenges to first responders when disaster strikes — and less-than-ideal comms can often make the situation worse.

One outcome of the inquiry held in the aftermath of the state’s devastating 2013 bushfires was recognition of the need to improve interoperability of communications between emergency services agencies and other organisations. The solution chosen was an ‘interoperability gateway’ that would act as a bridge between disparate communications systems.

Tasmania Police and the other emergency services operate on different networks. The police and, to a much smaller extent, the SES, operate on the government’s Trunk Mobile Radio Network (TMRN), which is a digital-capable network. It’s also used by the Tasmanian electricity supply industry (TESI), which comprises Hydro Tasmania (the power generator) and TasNetworks (the grid operator).

The TMRN is based on Harris Corporation EDACS 800 MHz proprietary technology, which enables analog and digital communications using the same infrastructure. The TMRN was constructed and commissioned by Ericsson in the mid-1990s.

The Tasmania Fire Service and Ambulance Tasmania, meanwhile, use a series of 70 MHz analog networks.

The Tasmanian Department for Police and Emergency Management (DPEM) issued a tender in early 2015 for ongoing operation and maintenance of the TMRN, with the aim of letting a contract for services for a period of three years with the option of two, 1-year options. DPEM required that services were to be delivered using the existing network equipment, infrastructure and reporting systems as far as is practicable.

Ericsson was the successful tenderer, given a four-year contract to provide for the ongoing operation, monitoring, maintenance and security of the network.

The TMRN will continue to operate until a new whole-of-government radio network solution has been implemented, which will be procured via a separate tender process.

The interoperability gateway, which was commissioned in February 2015, has been implemented by putting patches into place in the different services’ communication centres. It provides flexibility. So, for instance, if there were two separate incidents, one in Hobart and one in Launceston, the gateway could patch both incidents together or two separate patches could be put in place for the respective entities. The patches can remain active on a long-term basis or they can be removed and reinitiated for a specific activity as required.

The gateway uses standard off-the-shelf technology from the Harris range of EDACS equipment and has been installed as part of the TMRN and connected to the fire and ambulance services using microwave links.

From the EDACS IP network at police headquarters, there’s a microwave link to the Tasmania Fire Service headquarters building. At the end of that microwave link there’s a Harris NetworkFirst device, which is the interoperability gateway. This converts the IP stream from the trunk network to 4-wire E&M interfaces, which are then connected into the Acom dispatch system consoles. The same system is used to connect with Ambulance Tasmania.

The microwave services are configured as 1+1 to give high redundancy. Plus, between Fire and Ambulance there is a fibre-optic ring connecting the two switches, providing an alternate route for the signals.

As an interim measure, some other steps were taken. For example, Tasmania Police purchased a number of VHF radios that were directly compatible with the Fire and Ambulance service networks. Just under $250,000 was allocated to purchase 30 Tasmania Fire Service radios for Tasmania Police and 50 Tasmania Police radios for the State Emergency Service. This capability was in place for the 2013–14 bushfire season.

The Tasmanian government is moving towards establishing a new, whole-of-government radio system by 2020, which will put all of the users onto one network. It has a project running on this, to determine the business needs of the users. Once that is completed, it will look at what the issues and solutions are for a whole-of-government network, such as spectrum.

Initially the whole-of-government network will focus on the core government radio users, such as police and emergency services and the Tasmanian electricity supply industry (TESI), but the intention is that the network will have the ability to bring other government radio users onto it is in place.

Bushfire flames

Credit: bert knottenbeld under CC BY-SA 2.0

Putting it into practice

Critical Comms spoke with the Deputy Commissioner of Tasmania Police, Scott Tilyard, to find out how the interoperability gateway has been faring.

“Because of the way we work, not just here in Tasmania, but certainly right around Australia and in many other places in the world now, [we need] a multiagency response to large-scale incidents and events in particular,” said Tilyard. “So there is a need for our frontline responders in particular to be able to communicate with each other if necessary.

“Over the years we’ve learned, through many experiences, the benefits of agencies working more collaboratively, and training together as well,” said Tilyard. “So it isn’t just the actual response and recovery, it’s also the preparedness type of work. These days we certainly do operate in that way, more so than we have done in the past.

“Certainly training and working together it does give you a much better appreciation for some of the issues that the other services providers face,” he added. “And being better informed means you’re making better decisions yourself as well.”

The system has been running for just over a year, and according to Tilyard it has been meeting expectations.

“We don’t have it activated all of the time — we activate it as required,” he said. “It was certainly designed in particular for those large-scale type of events, such as major bushfires and flooding and those sorts of things.

“But it can used on a day-to-day basis for any incident really where there’s a benefit in our frontline people communicating directly with each other, as opposed to having to go through our respective radio control centres,” he added.

Tilyard said he knows from personal experience that having interoperable comms can be a significant benefit on the ground. “If emergency services are operating in close proximity to each other, to be able to talk to the fire truck down the street certainly helps,” he said. “On a day-to-day basis we’ll attend to things like motor vehicle crashes, and you’ll have fire and ambulance and police there, and sometimes SES, and they won’t necessarily need to be talking on the radio at the scene… but there’ll be other incidents where there might be a benefit.”

In terms of interoperability, Australia is fortunate in having relatively few emergency services organisations… unlike, say the US, where there are tens of thousands of police, fire, ambulance and other emergency services agencies and jurisdictions. For instance, in the US, from a policing perspective, there could be state police, municipal police and university police responding to the same incident.

“I know they can often confront significant jurisdictional issues,” said Tilyard. “Something will happen in a particular location and there won’t necessarily be unanimous agreement as to who’s in charge.

“We are fortunate here in Australia that we have much fewer jurisdictions, so we don’t have to confront a lot of those issues.”

We also asked the Deputy Commissioner about reports that surfaced in the mainstream media earlier this year, of criminals eavesdropping on police communications using scanners.

“Obviously with the advances in technology, scanning digital transmissions is possible, it can be done,” he said. “We’re yet to validate the information that was received that some criminals are scanning some of our transmissions on the digital network. But as a precautionary measure we’ve actually encrypted [the radios used by] some of our more specialist units, so that sort of scanning is not possible.

“In terms of the whole-of-government radio network that we’re moving towards, we obviously intend that digital encryption will be part of the functionality of that network,” he added.

Common dispatch system

In addition to the upgrades, current and planned, for the radio systems, Tasmanian emergency services agencies will soon have the benefit of brand new emergency services computer-aided dispatch (ESCAD) systems as well.

At present, police, fire and ambulance use separate CAD systems that are not integrated in any way, while SES doesn’t have one.

A few months ago, the Tasmanian Premier, Will Hodgman, announced that Fujitsu Australia had been awarded a $6.5 million contract for the initial acquisition and implementation of the ESCAD system. The contract will also provide support and maintenance for five years following implementation of the system, bringing the total cost to $15.3 million.

Local Tasmanian company Synateq has been engaged by Fujitsu to assist in the implementation of the project and for ongoing support.

Tasmania police officers standing together

Tasmania Commissioner of Police Darren Hine (right) and an officer discuss the use of mobile tablet devices (on stand, in foreground).

The ESCAD system will manage medical, police, fire and emergency incidents from the initial notification of an incident until its conclusion, and will have the ability to track the status and location of resources and analyse responses post-incident.

The system presently used by Tasmania Police was built in-house nearly 30 years ago. According to Deputy Commissioner Tilyard, it’s done an “exceptionally good job” and is still meeting the force’s business needs today. “But it’s at end of life, so that was really a catalyst for us to look at a replacement system,” he said.

“And, of course, these days the question needs to be asked, what is the whole-of-government benefit we can get from this?” he added. “Rather than just replacing a system for police, we needed to look more broadly to a common system for emergency services and police.

“And certainly in some other places in the country that has already been done,” he said. “So it was agreed that we would move to a common system and it would be used by all of the services and, for the first time, give SES a dedicated CAD capability as well.”

It’s not intended that the different services will integrate their radio rooms, but they will all use the common ESCAD system, with some tailoring of screens in terms of the information that’s presented. They’ll be able to share information and data through the system, which at present can be done only via telephone or email.

“For example, if there’s a fire at a location and police units are dispatched, the operators will know that the fire service has already dispatched a fire unit and approximately what the ETA will be,” said Tilyard. “That sort of information isn’t available now unless somebody makes a phone call, basically.

“From our perspective, it’s all about delivering a better level of service to the community, but making our frontline responders safer as well.”

All of the services will be operational with the new ESCAD system in October of 2017.

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