Airwave emergency communication radios "seriously flawed"

Published 9 July 2007

In 2002 London launched a £3 billion emergency communication service; 7/7 highlighted shortcomings in the system, and a new study finds that two years later the system is still flawed

If we have said once that communication systems collapse during disasters, we have said it a thousand times. Two years after 7/7, and two weeks after the latest round of terrorists attack in the United Kingdom, a study is expected to question the efficiency of the £3 billion Airwave communication system commissioned by the Home Office, which should allow all the different emergency services to communicate with each other. The system was launched not because of 7/7, but back in 2002 to meet the needs of the Commonwealth Games. The communication problems three years later, during 7/7, convinced the city government that the system was even more necessary that had originally been thought. A new report, soon to be released, says that the equipment which was supposed to allow emergency services to cope in the event of a terrorist attack is seriosuly flawed. The system has also been at the center of controversy because of repeated delays in its implementation.

Communication was identified as a key failing during the reaction to the 7/7 attacks. As was the case earlier during 9/11 and later during Hurricane Katrina — and during numerous Florida hurricanes and Missipssippi River floodings going back to the early 1990s — the emergency services lost radio contact with each other, police dispatchers did not know which of the Undeground stations were most seriously hit and, hence, were unsure where to send reinforcements, and doctors were unsure to which hospitals they should send casualties. The Guardian’s Hugh Muir writes that research by the London assembly’s 7/7 review committee now suggests the system is erratic in certain buildings because of metal in the infrastructure. Researchers have been told that the radios will not even work in some police stations and in some retail outlets. The fault is said to raise even more serious questions about their effectiveness underground.

The report will contend that the size of the Airwave contract does not reflect the expansion of the Metropolitan police and the number of officers who would need access to it. Moreover, the way the system was constructed poses problems in communication above ground as well: The system divides London into four zones, but tests show that there is difficulty maintaining the signal for officers who pass from one zone to another. Richard Barnes, who chaired the committee and led the subsequent monitoring exercise, said: “The contract was rushed in 2002 to meet the needs of the Commonwealth Games. Five years later the world has changed in terms of police officers numbers and security issues but there is no flexibility on the contract to accommodate that.” Barnes, who sits on the Metropolitan police authority, said the criticisms were not directed at the Airwave company but at those who drew up and have managed the contract. “We as employers are asking officers to go into areas where they are beyond contact. That is not good enough. They do what we ask because of their inherent bravery but we must make sure they have the best equipment available. As things stand they do not.”

He said the research suggested army-style “personal role” radios could be used by police and the other emergency services while underground problems with Airwave are ironed out. But he said the idea had limited support from the police and Transport for London.

The U.K. government’s own review, titled “Lesson Learned,” conceded that emergency services in London were unlikely to be fully equipped with Airwave until 2009 and that roll-out to the rest of the United Kingdom was likely to take even longer. The news is not all bad: The National Policing Improvement Agency, which has responsibility for Airwave, said the system “delivers significant communication improvements,” and that it proved “robust and effective” in south Yorkshire during the recent flooding and after the attack in Glasgow two weeks ago.