Combatting communication breakdowns

Crisis communications

Discussions about emergency services usually diverge into discussions about most prominent natural catastrophes and terrorist attacks. Such events tend to create crisis and inflict panic over the general public. For this reason, it is important to define an appropriate crisis handling management framework. This strategy will coordinate all the available resources in terms of public services (i.e. police, authorities, hospitals, fire-brigade) so that the crisis is resolved smoothly.

Two major radio systems are used in Europe for public safety and security purposes: TETRA and TETRAPOL. The main differences between these professional mobile radio (PMR) systems and other public mobile cellular systems, such as GSM or UMTS, are faster call set-up, group calls, priority calls, encryption, and the ability to make direct calls without connection via a base station. There have been heated discussions on which system is better, in terms of reliability and cost. Both, TETRAPOL and TETRA are digital, cellular trunked radio systems. Lately, there have been some reports of health issues related to the use of the TETRA technology but no health problem has been reported with TETRAPOL technology so far.

Work and development in the area of emergency services has often resulted in a separate communication infrastructure with specialised radio frequencies, protocols and hardware. This has often proven expensive and non-interoperable across communication platforms and services. While current approaches such as TETRA already provide a networking technology that will be available to different emergency agencies it is still a closed network with very expensive equipment and OPEX costs. Besides its low bandwidth, there are already different non-interoperable flavours of the TETRA technology that are used in various EU countries. This would make the communication between emergency agencies from different countries just as difficult.

Our research at Kingston University, London, looked at how we communicate in a major disaster or emergency. When there’s a major terrorist event, earthquake or large forest fire, traditional phone lines and radios often cannot cope and tend to jam because of the volume of calls or other multimedia traffic. The goal of the Kingston University research team was to realise emergency services based on an all-IP network and standardised platforms such as IMS (IP Multimedia System) and MANETs (Mobile Ad-hoc Networks) which are proposed by 3GPP, ETSI and IETF respectfully as the basis for multimedia communication in next generation networks.

The team led by Dr Christos Politis and comprising Arvind Ramrekha, Emmanuel Panaousis and Grant Millar, has designed a sophisticated, internet-based software platform to keep rescuers and their central control room in touch independently, rather than using central wireless access points (GSM, UMTS or WiFi) or the TETRA system. Then any device the size of an iPad or other personal digital assistant using this software technique will also allow emergency service workers in the United Kingdom to talk to counterparts across Europe on a secure system. The devices can operate in license-exempt (i.e. WiFi or licensed spectrum such as UMTS) and can stay connected for as long as their batteries last.

The software runs optimisation algorithms in order to reduce power consumption, increase QoS (quality of service) and maintain security rules. The design allows one of the mobile devices carried by a rescue worker to act as the super-node letting other mobile devices communicate with each other. This is based on a unique DHT (distributed hash table) algorithm that we have implemented and it is integrated within our software platform. As soon as a device passes a virtual intelligence security-check, it can start to find others in the location. Each worker can then talk or send video or data to individual workers or entire groups up to the distance of about 500 metres.        

The devices have been further optimised to work with sensors. These sensors are able to pick up humidity levels, workers’ heart rates, temperatures, movement and pass these on to the super-node for further forwarding or processing.


We believe our invention offers huge potential in the fight against terrorism and natural disasters. If the optimised devices take off then in the future it could transform the way rescuers search for survivors in an earthquake.

The Kingston design recently won backing from emergency service experts and EC bureaucrats in a workshop in Portugal. The team has also liaised with the Internet Engineer Task Force (IETF), an international community of Internet professionals who work to advance the Internet architecture, as the application has been developed. At the same time, the Kingston team has filed a patent on the implementation and will now be refined and could be rolled out to emergency services within two years.

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