Best practice communications are essential to major incident management. This article from Tony Gray, Chief Executive of global critical communications organisation TCCA, looks at first responder behaviours in Finland and the US, and highlights the importance of training and discipline.
Around the world, largely unseen and unrecognised, there are individuals and organisations whose responsibility is to keep us safe. Protecting citizens and communities, and helping to ensure that society functions in a civilized manner, the first responders who comprise our policing, fire and rescue and emergency medical response teams are people that we unthinkingly rely on in a crisis.
Putting themselves on the front line, they are the highly trained teams that manage major incidents. The word ‘team’ is the critical one, as these individuals have to work together seamlessly to execute a rapid and efficient response, and to ensure the safety of themselves and their colleagues as well as the general public.
Disciplined and reliable communications are the key to safe and effective working practices, and to that end first responders use designed-for-purpose communications systems that are not available to consumers. These systems have to be robust and always available, so first responders can be sure that when they need their radio, it works instantly.
Critical communications networks are currently based on narrowband technologies such as TETRA and P25, with complementary non-critical broadband data services carried over commercial 3G/4G networks. Some countries are looking to eventually migrate first responder voice as well as data services on to broadband LTE/4G networks once the systems have been hardened to include the specific requirements of first responders.
But irrespective of the network, the communications behaviours of first responders need to be common and predicable across all agencies – there is no time in a crisis for misunderstandings.
The view from Finland
Antti Kauppinen is Head of Department, Mobile Technology Development and Strategy at Erillisverkot Group in Finland, which among other ICT responsibilities runs Virve, the national administrative security radio network. Virve is used by authorities, security operators and first responders for efficient and secure communications, and is an essential part of the daily cooperation between authorities as well as in crisis situations, including across organisational boundaries.
Kauppinen is responsible for the technology in transition from narrowband to broadband communications for Virve users – not a straightforward process as first responders particularly need to have complete confidence in the new system.
Virve users are currently on a TETRA narrowband network for voice services. “Speech is by far the most critical medium for leading, managing and reporting,” says Kauppinen. “With TETRA there is a group communications hierarchy, so group leaders can speak directly to other group leaders. There will be incident talk groups and shared talk groups – these will be preset, so there has to be discipline and training.”
Regular training is essential to ensure all participants in an incident response team know how to act and understand the roles of colleagues – effective training tunes the way of working. Reactions should be automatic, and it is imperative that the operational procedure in crisis is actually the same as in day-to-day non-emergency activities.
“With broadband, the worry is the constant level of performance – it needs to work in exactly the same way for users,” says Kauppinen. “Every time a user pushes the button on the radio, it must work the same. And if the radio is sending video then the baseline is the same. We can’t risk the lives of people in society for the sake of change – all new advances are very welcome as long as users have full trust and confidence in them.
“Take the coverage issue – there is expectation of coverage on the current TETRA network, users need to know that when they walk through that door, they will have coverage. With broadband, we don’t want a scenario where users are saying ‘it used to work, it worked last time’; the ability to trust is very important. Similarly, when you give a command, that command needs to be acknowledged and confirmed – the execution may be different but the process needs to be the same whether it is human to human or machine to machine. Predictability is key.”
In the future, Kauppinen thinks that for first responders it may be that information will be presented in the best way for the individual, so for example, haptic communications may be deployed in a situation with no visibility, where the best way to communicate with a human may be via a machine.
Broadband data can provide enhanced information in terms of situational awareness, particularly when critical communications users have priority 4G/5G services. So for instance, sensors that trigger a fire alarm will be able to transmit real time information and video to the first responders on their way to the incident.
“Public safety users will want to harvest all the benefits of broadband, of virtual reality and artificial intelligence,” says Kauppinen, “but the networks first have to be ready to meet mission critical demands.”
Best practices in US fireground communications
Ken Rehbehn is Directing Analyst, Critical Communications at IHS Markit, specialising in mission-critical and business-critical communications technologies used for public safety and industry. Ken has also been a volunteer firefighter with Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service in Maryland, US since the 1970s. He brings a global view of the critical communications industry as well as extensive first-hand experience of the fireground.
“Practices in fireground communications vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but the principles will generally remain consistent, helping support the modern concept of incident management. The US uses an effective incident command system that has evolved from the challenges of large-scale California wildland firefighting. These massive operations provided a tremendous experience base developed in a demanding operational environment,” says Rehbehn.
“First and foremost, the incident command system establishes clear lines of authority and streamlined communications. On the fireground, voice communications flow through group supervisors. Whenever possible, face-to-face communications are used to limit the radio traffic and to bolster the effectiveness of the group supervisor. Instead of all communications being directed at the incident commander, only essential information gets transmitted by these group supervisors. This disciplined approach not only helps reduce radio traffic but also increases the quality of information.”
When done well, voice radio communications at an incident are crisp, to the point, clear and flowing through the incident command procedure. There are exceptions, and a notable exception will be the mayday or distress call made by an individual firefighter. The call for help – with the location, unit identifier, name, air status, and resources required (LUNAR) – is meant for incident command as well as any nearby resources that can render aid.
“Best practices for supporting the mayday situation include having a clearly articulated policy on what information a distressed firefighter should communicate – and the actions other members must take to keep radio traffic minimal as a rescue response takes shape,” says Rehbehn. “This best practice must include regular training so that the behaviours can be applied across all incidents irrespective of scale. These best practice voice communications should end up becoming muscle memory.”
As mobile LTE is hardened to mission-critical standard, there is much being made of the use of data to enhance the work of first responders, but Rehbehn thinks it unlikely that voice will cease to be the most immediate and efficient means of communication in a crisis situation. “It won’t happen while real people are involved in managing an incident – maybe once all human intervention is eliminated, but until then, voice will remain king for a truly effective response.”