Using RoIP as part of a disaster recovery plan

Omnitronics Pty Ltd
Wednesday, 19 December, 2012

With so many natural disasters in recent years (the Christchurch earthquakes, Qld floods and Black Saturday bushfires to name a few), organisations are now thinking about how to maintain their communications networks during these times, when they are needed most.

Keeping the radio network up and running not only ensures a quick and efficient response, it also helps keep field personnel and community members as safe as possible.

No longer does this just apply to emergency services but also to utilities, transportation, resources and all other groups that support the affected communities.

Maintaining communications during and following these events takes a lot of planning and can prove quite difficult due to the number of unknowns. Radio over IP (RoIP) is a useful tool to provide organisations with the flexibility to adapt to a range of situations quickly and easily.

In simple terms, RoIP is a method to interconnect radio systems and operators together over existing IP infrastructures such as private LANs or VPNs. Radio repeaters, dispatch consoles and other devices are connected together using an IP gateway, each with a unique IP address. The technology is well proven, having been used for many years now, right around the globe.

By using this method of interconnecting radios, it is easy to add-in additional devices and/or sites across vast geographical areas very quickly and cost effectively. So when disaster strikes, organisations can quickly ensure the network is ready to face the challenge.

There is a range of different scenarios in which RoIP can improve disaster recovery efforts which will be discussed throughout this article.

Complete network coverage with improved reliability

One of the key findings of the Royal Commission into the 2009 Victorian Bushfires was that communications were hampered by the poor coverage and number of radio ‘black’ spots over regional areas. This was amplified all the more by the fire and smoke.

This lack of coverage caused significant concern about the safety of the personnel on the front line who need to be constantly made aware of changes in conditions.

By using RoIP connections, it is much easier to remove these black spots. In the past, adding additional repeater locations to a network was quite a costly exercise as this often meant requiring leased lines and microwave links. Now with RoIP, the cost is significantly reduced as existing IP infrastructures are used.

The interconnections between radios and consoles also become more reliable since they form a part of a mesh IP network. This provides an inherently resilient infrastructure that is not subject to a single point of failure.

Multiple dispatch locations

RoIP also enables the use of multiple dispatch and management locations. These can be placed wherever they are required whether they are for day-to-day operations or as a backup site.

The importance of this is evidenced by the response to the Queensland floods of 2011 where the ability to provide backup dispatch locations proved invaluable, especially in the hardest hit places such as Townsville.

By having multiple locations available, if the main site is out of operation, a backup site can instantly be put into operation by connecting to the central radio management system via a RoIP link.

These backup dispatch locations can take a variety of forms such as:

  • Permanent backup locations with touch-screen consoles and/or rugged non-PC based consoles.
  • Portable dispatch consoles in the form of a laptop that can be taken to any temporary location.
  • Full dispatch capabilities within incident control vehicles that can be deployed to where they are needed most.
  • Or any combination of the above.

Operators are able to maintain the same functionality no matter where they are. This could be within the same district or on the other side of the country. With RoIP, distance is no longer an issue.

IP phone connectivity

By including SIP signalling protocol on a network, radio channels are also able to be accessed from phones. Supervisors and managers can directly speak to the personnel in the field from their SIP-enabled phone.

Many smartphones now have SIP applications which can be downloaded, effectively using phones as radios. Supervisors no longer need to be bound to their desks to stay in touch. They can communicate on their radio network from anywhere and without needing to be in close radio proximity.

Managing backup systems

Sometimes, having multiple dispatch locations is not enough. For example, if a communications centre itself is compromised in some way then access to the radio network may be impacted.

RoIP enables organisations to provide complete redundancy on their central radio management system by creating regular, whole-of-system backups to a second system at a differing location. In the event of an outage, remote operators can almost seamlessly connect to the backup system which will maintain copies of all their current settings.

RoIP facilitates this redundancy by providing multiple paths to repeater sites and by replicating received audio at multiple dispatch locations, including the backup system.

Once again, this backup location could be anywhere. For example, many national organisations have a number of communications centres across the country. In this situation, network control for Brisbane could be backed up to Sydney and then accessed from there in the event the Brisbane centre’s system is inaccessible.

Remote configuration and monitoring

Often in emergency situations, systems may need to be reconfigured to meet the increased, immediate demands. By including a dispatch system that can be remotely configured over IP, system integrators and technicians can now access the server from any remote location through a web browser.

Areas of a radio network can also be isolated so that the increased radio traffic that occurs during a disaster incident is not broadcast to areas which are not required to be involved. This avoids unnecessary radio traffic in these areas. For example, in the event of a fire, radio resources can be reallocated to where they are required most, on the frontline. Meanwhile, radio traffic to other coverage areas is minimised to only include traffic that is relevant to that area.

This remote configuration ability also means a more immediate response as integrators do not need to travel to the communications centre, whether it is a distance away or the centre is not accessible due to safety concerns.

Additionally, the health of the system can be monitored in real time to ensure it is operating efficiently while under increased pressure.

Cross-departmental communications

Collaboration between organisations can often mean the difference between lives lost or saved. Not only do emergency services need to communicate between each other but also many other services that support the community such as utilities and transportation.

However, many of these organisations will be working on different systems which can make this difficult. This could be differing frequency bands (UHF, VHF, air-band, marine-band etc) or differing protocols (analog, P25, DMR, TETRA).

By choosing the correct VoIP connectivity device and network management system, organisations can ensure interoperability between all of these mediums and therefore those organisations they need to collaborate with.

Also, by using the remote configuration mentioned previously, these communication channels can be quickly and simply set up from any location.

The importance of a disaster recovery plan for communications is not disputed. This is emphasised in a previous article of this publication where Garry Kerr, manager of system support services at the Queensland Department of Community Safety, mentioned that in response to the Queensland floods of 2011, “While some sites lost serviceability during the cyclone, the Queensland Department of Community Safety’s business continuity planning, incorporating the use of redundant radio services and dedicated incident channels, allowed the operational divisions to continue their service delivery to the communities, without compromise.”

By including RoIP as part of a network infrastructure and in a disaster recovery plan, an organisation will be given flexibility to meet the increased demands and pressures of a disaster, reliably and safely.

This is all done by keeping everyone connected, from the personnel in the field to the dispatch operators to the supervisors and managers and to other organisations you are collaborating with.

And perhaps most importantly, RoIP provides organisations with the ability to quickly adapt their communications network to meet the unknown challenges a disaster could bring.

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