Features: August 17th, 2007

Given that 90% of the UK’s population lives on 10% of the land, it is extremely easy to forget that this is still a very rural country. However, there are many regions where remote living and the associated hazards of extreme weather conditions are a fact of ordinary life. In such areas, the need to deal with emergency situations occurs frequently and involves types of response that are seldom required in the more temperate heartlands of the country.

The Highland Council’s jurisdiction in Scotland defines extreme UK rural remoteness. Covering a land area the size of Belgium, yet with a dispersed population of approximately only 200,000 people, the Highland Council faces meteorological conditions on an annual basis that other more southerly regions can expect only once in a blue moon. Yet it is important to note that while the most northerly region of mainland Scotland does regularly experience severe weather conditions, vast portions of northern England, Wales and many other areas also contend with similar meteorological extremes.

In the past it was snow that caused the most upsets, on occasion cutting off vast chunks of the Highlands for several days. Today, changing weather conditions have seen this problem become slightly more muted and yet in its place turbulent, stormy weather has taken its place with a similarly severe impact. Recently, one storm obliterated entire roads, cutting off communities as effectively as the vast snow drifts of previous years.

Ralph Williscroft from the Highland Council summed up the challenge: “Such scenarios require rapid response by the emergency services, not just to respond to the emergency itself but also to maintain the day-to-day operations of the three blue light services. As such, there is a requirement for close collaboration between the emergency services and our road maintenance teams whose job it is to grit the region’s roads during the winter as well as repairing and maintaining them through the rest of the year. To achieve this in an area as vast as that covered by the Highland Council means that effective and robust communications has always been a critical requirement.”

It is for this reason that the Highland Council has pioneered the introduction of the Airwave service for its Roads Maintenance department. When live, it will be the first time that the Airwave service has been used in this way by local authorities beyond the normal eligible use for emergency planning and uniformed street and community wardens.

Coping with Mother Nature

The Highland Council roads maintenance teams perform a critical role in continually forging the link to all of the area’s far-flung communities whatever Mother Nature throws their way. During the winter months the council’s gritters are constantly patrolling the roads to ensure they are kept free of ice and, when the snow does fall, ensuring that it is cleared as soon as can be practicably managed.

To achieve this level of service, radio communications has always been of paramount importance. However, for a number of reasons the current system that the area has been relying upon for many years had reached the end of its working life.

The most immediate time pressure for the old radio system’s replacement was the mandate by OFCOM to switch off the analogue frequency that the network used as part of the nationwide digital switchover initiative. While clearly an alternative communications system was needed, it was not simply the imminent demise of the radio frequency that led the Highland Council to both want the Airwave service and be prepared to overcome the restrictions in place against Airwave being used by roads maintenance teams.

Ralph Williscroft explained: “The Airwave service guarantees coverage over all the UK’s metalled roads. In a remote region such as the Highlands this is a massive benefit allowing the roads maintenance teams to remain in contact with their control centre regardless of the severity of the weather conditions.”

To ensure that the masts are not adversely affected by the most common of problems during poor weather – power outage – all of the key masts are fitted with their own independent generators that can guarantee sufficient power supply until the grid is restored.

In addition, the Airwave service has the advantage of not operating over an open network. Instead it is highly secure and has the flexibility of being able to offer autonomous voice groups that greatly assist operational requirements.

However, the greatest new benefit that the Airwave service brings that the old radio network could not match, is its ability to enable direct interoperability with other emergency and public safety organisations.

When it’s not just good but essential to talk

To date, interoperability between the Highland Council and the emergency services has been restricted to the police and communications only achieved by placing a Highland Council radio within each of the region’s police control rooms. While this has enabled activities to be co-ordinated it lacks the level of sophistication and speed of communication that the Airwave service provides.

By equipping the road maintenance teams with Airwave handsets, direct communication will be possible with the police. Furthermore, when the ambulance and fire services also go live on the Airwave service in the near future, all three blue light services and the Highland Council will be able to directly interact to more effectively manage emergency or disaster scenarios.

Ralph Williscroft commented: “It is predicted that the interoperability will provide benefits to all parties. For the Highland Council Roads Maintenance department it will allow our teams to more effectively support the emergency services to gain access to remote areas during extreme weather conditions. Conversely, the local presence of road maintenance teams will be able to act as an extension to the eyes and ears of the police. In a region as large as that covered by the Highland Council this is an important advantage.”

The wider benefits

The transition to the Airwave service will have profound changes on the Highland Council operations. Ultimately, 500 handsets will be in use, predominantly within the road maintenance department but with some handsets for the standard local authority Airwave role of communications for emergency planning and uniformed wardens. The Highland Council also has an inclusive policy to interact with the area’s constituent district councils and hope Airwave will be adopted more widely through the region to allow this.

A further benefit that will be realised from the Airwave service will be the easier and more transparent logging of gritting work. All councils have a legal responsibility to log all gritting activity and are obliged to demonstrate in court that the work was carried out should there be any legal challenge. Through Airwave, the Highland Council will be able to use the handsets’ GPS tracking capability to demonstrate exactly where the gritters were deployed. It will also allow all deployment calls to be logged and assist with the legal requirement for the control centre operators to receive a response to requests to grit specific roads.

However, it is not just the remote communities covered by the Highland Council that will reap the benefits of this deployment. By successfully completing and gaining approval for the business case for local authority roads maintenance departments to use the Airwave service, other councils will now find any similar application far easier to draft and secure. This means that other councils that cover remote areas of the UK will be able to consider the Airwave service for current or future communications requirements of their roads maintenance teams when they perform a vital public safety role.

Ralph Williscroft concluded: “Airwave will help improve the day-to-day management of our services. However it will be particularly important within disaster or emergency situations, enabling us to be far more effective in responding to and communicating with other parties involved. That is a real benefit for the Highland community.”