NSW Ambulance's rural data refresh

By Jonathan Nally
Monday, 22 January, 2018

NSW Ambulance's rural data refresh

Faced with increasing equipment and network constraints, NSW Ambulance undertook a wide-ranging data terminal upgrade.

NSW Ambulance serves more than 7.5 million people across 801,600 square kilometres, making it the world’s third-largest ambulance service. The service’s fleet of mobile data terminals (MDT) and the supporting back-end infrastructure was more than 10 years old and required increasing maintenance to ensure ongoing critical functions including duress alarms, vehicle location information and data network coverage.

The NSW Ambulance Rural Data Radio Network (RDRN) was scheduled for closure on 16 December 2016. This potentially meant that critical incident data could not be transmitted to frontline responders.

In addition, the Mobile Data Radio Network (MDRN), provided by the NSW Telco Authority, was due to conclude at the end of 2016, with a replacement service only being introduced in late 2018–19. Along with that, the Telstra 2G GPRS network that supported the existing equipment was due to be shut down in 2017.

So a $9.3 million Rural MDT Refresh Roll-out Project was instituted to provide an interim solution for that 24- to 30-month gap by replacing the vehicles’ end-of-life equipment and ICT infrastructure.

“We had to come up with an interim solution that would allow ambulance operations to continue uninterrupted in the period between the shutdown of the Telstra network and the commissioning of the new network,” said Geoff Waterhouse, senior project manager for NSW Ambulance’s Radio Telecommunications Capital Works Programme.

“Providing an interim communications solution was always going to require careful planning, consultation, testing and communication,” said Waterhouse. “While it may not have been one of the biggest projects in the history of NSW Ambulance, the risk of disruption to services during the implementation had, understandably, enormous ramifications for patient safety and this was considered to be of paramount importance in all elements of planning and delivery.”

Pilot testing informed the choice of technology, devices and bearers to be used in the project and enabled network operations to be maintained. Road tests conducted over eight weeks used four decommissioned ambulance vehicles to test a variety of new and existing technologies and devices in various configurations. Each vehicle travelled approximately 18,000 kilometres and four drivers clocked up 1800 hours of driving.

A remote radio tower site under sunny blue skies

Other impressive statistics include:

  • NSW Ambulance had nine weeks to upgrade 808 vehicles in rural NSW.
  • Operational sectors were divided into 35 clusters, each with around five stations and 25 vehicles.
  • The delivery phase involved more than 50,000 kilometres of vehicle movement and more than 2500 hours of specialised project and safety management.
  • At the peak of the rollout, crews were completing installations on 42 vehicles per day. The maximum weekly completion rate was 212 vehicles, and at the peak, installation 10 crews were operating concurrently.

According to Waterhouse, the key factors that enabled the project to be successfully implemented were: effective change management strategy; an ongoing, open consultation with internal and external stakeholders; timely communication with all staff; and extensive pilot testing across NSW, including in border locations. The service’s partners in the project were Trapeze Group and the NSW Telco Authority.

“NSW Ambulance has a comprehensive system of policies and procedures that have been proven to work very effectively,” said Waterhouse. “This project drew on the foundations of these, and then adapted them to address the complex requirements and dispersed geographic nature of this project.

“The fact that this technology rollout was so time-constrained added another risk element, and the detailed methodology developed during the process can certainly be applied to other complex projects,” he added.

“Historically, metropolitan vehicles were configured differently from those servicing the rural areas, and used different carriers,” said Waterhouse. “Standardisation allows greater flexibility and interoperability to move vehicles within the state, and provides cost benefits associated with having one managed service rather than two. Now, MDTs can communicate across all regions of the state and operational procedures are the same for all vehicles.”

There is a measure of innovation in the technology and systems adopted, too.

“Communications failure is mitigated by multilayer redundancies and functionalities; vehicles can now connect to the most current commercial prioritised data networks available — Telstra, Optus, Satellite, LTE — as the primary networks for information exchange,” said Waterhouse. “Futureproofing is enhanced through the scalability of the technology and the Wi-Fi hotspot capability of the MDT hardware. Firmware and software upgrades can take place remotely.”

Diagram showing wireless connections between ambulances, including helicopters and motorbikes, and their crews

With the rural refresh completed, NSW Ambulance is now in the process of completing the $2.8 million metro rollout. It’s “all part of a bigger vision of delivering a converged communications solution by combining different technologies, ie, creating a network of networks”, said Waterhouse.

“Our ultimate vision is about delivering the ‘connected clinician’, which is based on the ICT concepts of any device, anywhere and at any time,” added Waterhouse. The aim is to achieve “intuitive systems and reliable platforms that eliminate barriers to information, systems and processes; high-level engagement through ‘smart’ technologies; mission-critical, voice, video and data; and high-capacity, ‘self-healing,’ real-time, pre-emptive networks delivering the right data to support timely emergency care.”

When asked what lessons have been learned from the project that would have ongoing or wider application within NSW Ambulance or other services, Waterhouse emphasises communications of a different sort. “Listen to the organisation; understand the business drivers and operational environments,” he said, adding that “technology is [simply] a structural platform to provide benefits and efficiency in a healthcare service and emergency service organisation”.

As a sign of the high regard in which the sector holds the Refresh Rollout Project, it was listed as a finalist in the hotly contested Council of Ambulance Authorities 2017 Awards for Excellence.

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