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A 999 fit for purpose

28 March, 2008

BAPCO West Midlands Region emergency call arrangements seminar and mini exhibition took place at the impressive Museum Conference Centre, RAF Cosford. The theme for the day, New emergency call arrangements – what happens to 999?, drew much debate. Jose Sanchez reports.

VOIP Developments including issues with 999, Richard Stacey, Mason Communications

Richard’s informative presentation kicked off with some of the important milestones related to VOIP, including the release of a VOIP mobile handset by 3, the launch of the internet directory ENUM, the investment into the sector by companies such as CISCO.

And then down to business. “Is there are an issue in receiving 999 or 112 calls from VOIP? People’s opinions are divided.” Any new telephone handling solution requiring a high spec communications network will involve many issues, such as reliability, resilience, even down to the suitability of the cabling. “A cable suitable for connecting PCs may not be up to the grade suitable for VOIP. Check your data network can support it to the level you can get a benefit, it is something often overlooked.”

VOIP is also more prone to attack and a virus or denial of service attack could take down an entire network including your telephony system if it is VoIP enabled. “It is difficult to get a virus inside a closed off network, but it is possible, so you have to think about it.”
One benefit of VOIP is the availability of more information, particularly if looking at integration with command and control systems. “Most people have high spec wide area networks, and with these systems you can route calls more effectively and quicker. Flexibility is the key. VOIP gives you the ability to respond in times of crisis and open up a new communications room immediately and wherever the site of the incident is.”

VOIP will be the norm ten years down the line so you have to be ready – all UK ambulances are going down the VOIP route at present. The merger of the ambulance trusts has allowed issues of resilience to be comprehensively tackled. “While original control rooms have been kept they have introduced a wide area network supporting VOIP. Where there are numerous separate ICCS systems there are now two, but each control room is completely independent and flexible. If you loose a control room, everything continues to run without loss of service. It could be caused by an internal network failure or, perhaps more frequently, planned engineering works.”

As for making 999 calls using VOIP, here opinion is not divided. Yes, there are issues.
One is call resilience, as many more components have to work together in VOIP. Next is availability and ease of access. Products are sold on the market that just need plugging to the Internet to work. They are designed to be mobile. “You can go to the US, dial 999 and you’ll find the call being answered in the UK. Not very useful. There are huge problems with VOIP being unable to accurately locate the caller.”

Richard admits that he has been unable to quantify the benefits of dialling 999 on VOIP over traditional telephony, there just doesn’t seem to be any. A major hurdle has been overcome recently, where type 2 and type 4 suppliers are now required to deliver 999 calls by September 2008. Type 2 VOIP suppliers are those that allow calls to be made to a public network – but not received; and type 4 suppliers are those where it is possible to make and receive calls for the public network. Not only are they required to deliver 999 calls, but they also have to make available call location information. “But with VOIP you cannot provide this information. Ofcom’s statement says this information has to be provided, however, as far as it is ‘technically feasible’.”
But there is no technically feasible way of doing it. Even if suppliers ask users to update location information, it is unlikely that it will be a priority for users, for example when going on holiday.

“There are solutions that could be used. When a 999 call is made the provider of the telephone service knows the IP unique address of where it is coming form. That unique address could be copied into a database. It can be done but without regulations suppliers will not do it.”

During a question and answer session a delegate raised the issue of prioritisation of 999 calls made on VOIP, and Richard Stacey answered, “Data will get delivered on VOIP but speed is not guaranteed. Neither is the quality of the call, and that can be disconcerting in the case of an emergency where a victim of a car crash for example is hearing their own voice echoing four seconds later. An actual conversation could be rendered unintelligible.”

Chairman Rick Abbots emphasised how the idea of getting a fast response when dialling 999 had become a normal expectation. “So when we see VOIP we might conclude that it is not fit for purpose.” Richard Stacey underscored this expectation adding that in some areas of the US it is not possible to dial 911, and to contact a police officer the sheriff’s number has to be dialled. This is not something we are used to in the UK, wherever we are, we believe we can call 999.

There were various suggestions from delegates along the lines of current service definitions for 999 being used for VOIP. “The point is how to educate the public about understanding that their technology may not provide them with 999. From an emergency services point of view there has to be a response to this issue. If the emergency services are to continue achieving their targets then we need an answer to issues such as call identification,” concluded Chairman Rick Abbotts.

The replacement to the existing PSTN with the new BT digital network by 2010, David Groom, CCT Consultants. David Groom’s explained the impact of BT’s 21 CN (21st Century Network) on emergency response. This presentation was covered in the last issue of BAPCO Journal, page 26.

Use of cell broadcasting using cellular telephony. Mark Wood, Civil Emergency Alert Services Association International

Although cell broadcasting will be a familiar concept for regular BAPCO Journal readers, and indeed was covered in the November 2007 issue of this publication, it is an application that seems to be such a good idea that it is difficult to understand why it has not yet been put into practice.

A quick summary: most mobile phones have the capability to receive cell broadcasts, in the phone it’s called the “area information feature”. Cell broadcasts make it possible to reach millions of people in a matter of minutes. User numbers don’t matter. It was originally designed to work when other channels are congested. The facility is managed by the maintenance computer so it will carry on working when every other network has crashed.

Cell broadcasts allow people in certain locations to be warned to “run like hell”, while others to “stay in doors and switch the TV on”. This avoids public order problems at times of emergency. The origins of cell broadcasting are not lost in the mists of time, but the cellular industry is very reluctant to admit that they even have the bearer. Civil society groups have had no helpful input from the industry at all in their quest to understand it. Recently the US government (FCC) asked the industry to report on what capabilities they had to send public warnings. The report did mention that SMS was unsuitable but did not conclude that Cell Broadcast was embedded in the network and is the best fit we have.

The technology solutions have been around for a long time but, says Mark, the problem in implementation is political. The suspicion is that some networks don’t want to be associated with an unrequested message delivered via their networks and which could potentially contain erroneous/misleading information and could lead to liability issues.

Potential users of the system have to take responsibility and work out a successful formula, and Mark believes this has been achieved.

Under a proposed protocol, civic leaders or emergency officers can either formulate a message or use a library of prearranged messages. A broadcast control authenticates the source and checks the various protocols outlined by different mobile networks. One network provider, for example, may stipulate that no messages are sent after 10pm, to avoid waking up its customers.

The technology is also interoperable. “New York has lots of plasma screens, and they asked if messages could be relayed there. We said yes. It also works on wifi etc. And the great thing is the message will appear everywhere. Sometimes you need the same information from different sources until you believe it, and this increases your belief.”

Mark outlined how some network operators are trying to take advantage of cell broadcasting confusion. For example Mr Gutman-McCabe, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association VP for Regulatory Affairs, recently told a congressional legislative hearing, that the industry did not have a suitable technology for public warnings, but for “compensation” (thought to be asking around 180M USD per year) they would study developing one and report in 2012. “Basically they want the money to further develop other projects such as streaming video.”

Cell broadcasting is an unpopular option for network operators because SMS messaging is hugely profitable, and cell broadcasting is potentially free. “We are saying there are commercial avenues, for example telling people there is a sale in a shop nearby, and we have now developed billing systems for Cell Broadcast.” Unfortunately the arguments are falling on deaf ears. “So the networks want compensation, and the government needs to know which mobile companies will participate – because there is no law saying they have to. There has to be a meeting between you guys, cabinet office and mobile phone companies to decide what is going to be agreed.”

In some areas of the world progress has been made. South Korea has been using Cell Broadcast for public warnings since 2003. Turkey has been using it for all sorts of civic purposes for some years now and they are very pleased with the results. In Sri Lanka two networks have agreed, but it has yet to be tested, a new system is proposed for the Maldives. In Wisconsin USA they are using channel 921 for messages in English. New York city is testing with SMS with the intention of testing CB in comparison. Holland has just concluded a successful two-year evaluation, but an announcement is yet to be made. “The UK Cabinet Office told me last June that a consultation with stakeholders would be started but as far as I know this has not happened yet. I have the honour to represent the UK for OFCOM on cell broadcast harmonisation at the ITU in Geneva.”

But Mark believes some progress is taking place behind doors. “One of our lawyers recently bought a Blackberry in the US. The cell broadcasting capability was turned on to channel 921, which means that the terminal vendors are not foot dragging as much as the networks are.” In May, Mark is setting out a channellisation scheme proposal in front of the UN. “There are 65,000 channels out there. We want channel 921 to be for warning messages in English.” The EU Parliament has issued a statement as regards harmonisation of public warning broadcasts. “The World Health Organisation want to use it for virus outbreaks, for example to warn every doctor in a country that there has been an outbreak. Also it could have uses for maritime services. Many yachtsmen, for example, don’t have the radio channels but they will have mobile phones.”

Exhibitors at the roadshow: Arqiva, Cavendish, Microbus Manufacturing, PJ & RHS, SISLink, Stratus Technologies, Sungard, Tait Europe, Verint, Vertex Standard/Yaesu UK.

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