Monday, April 10, 2006

Airwave - why a police scanner won't work anymore.

Most police forces in the country now use Airwave, which is provided by o2 and is a digital radio communication system. You can find out more here

Previously, most police forces used standard radio systems, which differed according to each force and which were not based on a national standard. These used to be scannable using a radio scanner, so you often had to talk in code. Furthermore, in a lot of forces, communication normally only occurred between the officer and the radio operator, unless a specific talk-through with other units was requested. So you couldn't hear what your colleagues were up to, if it sounded like they needed any backup etc.

Other problems with the old system were that you couldn't contact another officer's radio directly, and because the channels could be scanned, sensitive information about a job or people involved in a job had to be passed by mobile phone instead, a rather cumbersome method of doing things.

The new systems are digitally encrypted, which means they cannot be scanned or listened to unless you're on the network as well, so we can speak freely, without needing to use code, and sensitive information can be passed across the network. Additionally, the radio channels operate on a 'Group Talk' system, so everyone on a radio channel can hear all transmissions from patrols and the radio operators. This means you can hear what everyone else is up to, whether or not they're likely to need more patrols to their location and what sorts of jobs are ongoing. It's also useful if you ask for directions, as knowledgeable officers can just jump in to the transmission with the right way to get somewhere!

One of the problems with this system, though, is the increase in traffic. Forces structure their radio channels differently. Some, for example, will have one radio channel per subdivision or two, whilst others may have one channel per division for a particular type of department, such as CID or Response or Section/Area. Some also have separate channels for PNC checks. Problems arise with both of these systems. For the latter, on a Friday or Saturday night, a division which has a busy town or city centre will often require a lot of patrols to be in that area to attend jobs or provide backup, and that town or city centre often is its own subdivision. If there's a lot going on, it can sometimes be difficult to get on the air to update comms or do PNC checks. If all patrols allocated to that talk group are busy then either noone is allocated, or free patrols get pulled off other subdivisions, and thus talkgroups covering those subdivisions, creating resourcing issues.

Meanwhile, the problem with having one channel for the division for Response, another for Area/Sector, one for CID etc. is that if a major incident or pre-planned operation occurs on one channel it can often hog the airwaves for a considerable amount of time. Sometimes a new talkgroup will be opened specifically for that incident, other times it will be allowed to run on the original talkgroup. And, again, if a division contains a busy town/city centre, then the other subdivisions may not get a word in edgeways on a busy Friday/Saturday night, especially on the Response Channel. Meanwhile, the PNC channel gets jammed up with queues of officers waiting to check people across the division, and it can be irritating having to change channels to get different things done.

E.g: You as an Area Officer turn up to a job and speak to a potential offender. They're wanted on warrant but you don't know that yet. You have to:

1. Update Comms on the Area channel that you are there
2. Switch to the PNC channel and do a check
3. After finding out they're wanted, switch to the Response channel and request prisoner transport

Each time you switch channels you have to cancel reception of any ongoing traffic, type in the channel number and switch. Try doing this with a radio in one hand and a notebook or handcuffed person in the other!

One fantastic feature of the new Airwave system is the Point To Point feature. This allows you to contact anyone on the Airwave network, which effectively means anyone in the country, if you know their radio number. Just type it in and it acts as a private phone call between you and them. Brilliant for double-checking whether your colleague in the nick wanted Southern or BBQ sauce on their Subway, or your mate on duty in another force. More sensibly, you can use it to ask your supervisor for advice without tying up the main network doing so, or allow a lengthy update or report to be passed to the radio operator without taking up valuable air time.

The radios also allow telephony as well, so rather than asking to use a landline in someone's house or business premises you can use your radio to phone crime reports in, cancel credit cards and the like. It's monitored so that we don't get away with calls to family in Timbuktu at the taxpayer's expense. There's no perks left in this job I tell you!

All they need now is to be able to provide FM radio for those quieter moments in the shifts or when working on files and all will be well!

(c) Bow Street Runner. None of the material contained in this post, or this blog as a whole, may be reproduced without the express and written permission of Bow Street Runner. All rights reserved.

Anyway, spam aside, Airwave is great. But it does have issues as you rightly point out.

Our force used to leave talkthru on most of the time. We'd still request you ask us before just going ahead and using it, but that way everyone else could hear what was going on and I considered it generally a Good Thing. But I miss the ability of being able to turn it off. Why?

How many times have you been with a witness/victim, and your colleague with the offenders, and you've got to pass something relatively sensitive to comms? You have to get PC AN Other to turn his radio down before you can speak, or phone the control room, or put in a callback request. All this could have been negated by me just pushing the T/T button in days of old.

Not being able to do P2P's while there is talkgroup traffic is another issue as far as I'm concerned. This also includes telephony. Not a problem if you are not on a busy talkgroup, but if it's anything like ours on Friday / Saturday night, it's infuriating.

Is it better than what we had? No, I don't think it is. It's just different. The positives and negatives may have changed, but it's no better overall!

My two cents, anyway. ;)
Glad to see that Airwave is working for you. In our mainly rural, and hilly, force - its a disaster. There are whole chunks of the patch in which it doesn't work at all. When following another vehicle and trying to do a check the constant drop outs make it very difficult. Yet Airwave (O2) meet the contractual criteria, which were clearly drawn up for urban forces.
We have some hilly very rural areas as well, and O2 have managed to do what we never could with PR - provide decent coverage. An officer back in days of old could be in the absolute middle of nowhere and have NO means of contacting comms apart from his MDT. PR had no signal, his mains set could not shout loud enough to be picked up, no mobile phone signal and just 1 bar on his MDT. At least his 10/20 button would work, but only if he was in the car at the time!

Airwave provides us with amazing clarity in these areas, to which we were quite surprised.

Yet, in built up areas, most of the time the quality of the signal is worse than we had with the old system. It appears our force were not prepared to pay O2 the 100% bonus they wanted to provide us with contractual level 'in-building' coverage. Given that perhaps only 30% of the jobs we attend are outside, this seems a bit silly. But at the same time, it IS about balancing the costs.

There is nothing more annoying tho than trying to speak to an officer, they reply, and not being able to hear a word. "Nbzzz Yggbt w0000rzx yabt, Over". ... "come again?"

My standing advice is to take 5 steps to their left, turn around, do one star jump and try again. Most of the time it works, too...
airwave is sucky in built up urban areas of tower blocks and high rise buildings ... on the old motorrolas it works due to signal bounce but not with airwave...

oh and dont get me started on that annoying beep AFTER you finish talking .....
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