The UK has a fourth emergency service – but it’s not the AA. It’s the Red Cross. With 30,000 volunteers, plus 3000 full and part-time staff, and with a clear role in the UK emergency management framework, the British Red Cross clearly has an important part to play supporting the work done by the three main emergency services. Emergency Services Times spoke to John Blake, the Red Cross National Emergency Communications Manager, about the thinking underpinning the acquisition of its six new command vehicles featuring mobile satellite broadband solutions supplied by Excelerate Technology.

To support its many staff and the valuable work they do, and to integrate better with the fire and rescue, police and ambulance services, the British Red Cross recently undertook a major review of its communications requirements, with a view to upgrading its mobile incident communications. As a result of this detailed process it recently introduced six new advanced command communications vehicles, which feature a range of advanced technologies, including mobile satellite broadband, supplied and supported by Excelerate Technology Ltd. The result will be huge improvements in Red Cross effectiveness, interoperable support for the three main emergency services and, as a result, greater public safety.

“Excelerate were chosen to provide the satellite link for our fleet of six nationally deployed communications vehicles and they worked in close conjunction with the vehicle builders and other specialist communications companies to integrate it into the vehicles.”

John Blake, British Red Cross

John Blake, National Emergency Communications Manager for the British Red Cross, said, “Following the floods in 2007, the British Red Cross undertook an internal review of how it had operated, both internally and with Category 1 and 2 partners. Following this review a project was initiated to produce a resilient set of communications tools with which to manage our own Red Cross staff and volunteers, and to interoperate with partners in a standard way throughout the UK.

“Initially the review of existing systems was undertaken by external consultants, and then the project team, through workshops with staff and volunteers. This covered the various systems, which included messaging, paging and the use of Airwave to supplement existing radio communications.”

“Some areas had simple communications vehicles which met local needs but would be restricted if operating elsewhere. A small, dedicated team then worked to provide a proof of concept vehicle, incorporating technology where it met an operational need and to set a national standard for use of the vehicle and systems.”

“Excelerate were chosen to provide the satellite link for our fleet of six nationally deployed communications vehicles and they worked in close conjunction with the vehicle builders and other specialist communications companies to integrate it into the vehicles.”

“We now have a fleet of six national communications vehicles spread geographically throughout the UK: one in northern Scotland to work with our Red Cross Fast Water Rescue Team, one in Glasgow, one in Newcastle, one in Warmley, one in Enfield serving London and another in Mitcham serving the south east. All serve a wide local area but can be deployed anywhere in the UK to support our work.”

Asked to comment on how well these new vehicles work in multi-agency operational situations, John said, “The experience gained so far suggests that we have exactly the right systems, not only to manage our own teams but also to interact and provide a real capability for supporting partners. As the Category 1 and 2 groups migrate to Airwave, charities do not have the funds to migrate completely, nor the wish to lose all their legacy radio equipment. We see the need to use all of our systems to be effective, both operationally and commercially, but in an integrated way

“As a charity we have to be transparent with our finances and only equipment which can make a positive value-for-money contribution has been incorporated into these vehicles. Each system has a specific role to play in providing resilient communications.”

“What is proving invaluable now, and will become more important as time goes on, is the ability to link and exchange information with both internal managers and partners at all levels, from operational to strategic, and the satellite systems are integral to that capability. When linked with the conferencing capability, and our ability to involve specialists wherever they are located, we can effect virtual management teams within a very short space of time and bring their expertise into play in supporting our Category 1 and 2 partners whenever and wherever the need arises.”

Mobile satellite broadband communications

This is at the heart of Excelerate’s technology offering, providing commanders with a robust, easily accessible and high capacity capability. Roof-mounted transportable satellite solutions provide resilient stand-alone broadband connections giving access to secure telephony, data, video, internet and e-mail facilities.

Satellite broadband is highly robust, a key factor during major emergencies when other communications systems can be overloaded and/or compromised. It is also easy to use – with the touch of one button a satellite system can be enabled, automatically locating a signal and providing fast, reliable communications.

Supporting this pioneering collaborative work within the emergency sector, Excelerate Technology is helping to drive the development of some of the most advanced mobile emergency management vehicles in the world. The full range of solutions can be integrated into large command vehicles as well as smaller, agile vehicles such as the Mercedes Vito and Land Rovers. Excelerate Technology can also retrofit upgrades into existing command vehicles. In the event of a main command headquarters (HQ) being put out of action, a mobile satellite broadband-enabled command vehicle could act as a backup HQ, thereby ensuring emergency management continuity.

Satellite communications enable command and control vehicles to receive and transmit data from all responders and emergency teams and achieve a Common Operational Picture. Combined with wireless networks, personnel using PDAs, laptops, mobile phones and data terminals can access tactical plans, live-streamed video or information from strategic emergency planning software. The range can be extended using self-powered, rapidly deployable MESH wireless nodes.

Maximum resilience

Vehicles also retain the flexibility to be upgraded with additional capability, such as the wide range of different wireless video options now offered by Excelerate, including body-worn cameras, dualthermal imagery cameras, pole and tripod mounted cameras and even the remarkable Sherpa climbing camera and communications platform, which automatically climbs up and places cameras and communications devices high up on poles for improved viewing of incidents.

For maximum resilience, vehicles can communicate directly with each other as well as their appropriate HQs and other locations. Some emergency services also use satellite broadband receivers at their command centre as well as on their mobile command vehicles.

Unsurprisingly, training forms an important part of the introduction process for the Red Cross vehicles, ensuring it receives best value for money. John said, “As the vehicles became operational we held a number of two-day training workshops for key staff and trainers, to enable them to train locally core teams to operate the vehicles. The host areas also regularly hold initial and continuation courses to ensure that we have the required number and levels of competency to operate the vehicles for protracted periods, if required.”

Clear benefits

The benefits, even at this early stage, are clear.

“Internally, since introduction, areas are very keen to use the vehicles as part of their exercising and incorporate it as part of the management infrastructure for pre-planned events, and immediately arising incidents where we would be supporting our Cat 1 & 2 partners,” said John.

“Externally, we are even beginning to get requests from some partners to provide the communications link as part of those partners’ emergency planning.”

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