In the market for… control rooms
Written by: Kate O'Flaherty | Published:

Control rooms are undergoing a huge technological change. It’s important to take into account this complex new environment when procuring solutions, writes Kate O’Flaherty

Emergency communications of the past mostly took place through voice calls. But today this is changing with text and rich media such as video increasingly used by emergency services personnel and the public as critical events unfold.

The transformation is happening rapidly, putting immense pressure on control room operators. Indeed, they must now quickly learn new skills to ensure they can derive the right information to dispatch personnel accordingly.

Add to this the uncertainty around the launch of the Emergency Services Network (ESN), which replaces TETRA with 4G in the UK, and control rooms are struggling in the midst of a perfect storm of complexity.

“There are enormous challenges coping with unstructured, chaotic information from sources that may, or may not be, reliable in real time as a crisis unfolds,” says Ken Rehbehn, principal analyst at Critical Communications Insights. For example, he says: “What if a multiple-casualty incident happens and citizens start sending pictures and videos from an event: how do we evaluate this? It takes time to examine this information and draw conclusions beyond ‘this is a bad situation’.”

In the past, control rooms operated on the basis of ‘you call, we come’, but this is changing due to cost pressures, says Reinard van Loo, senior advisor, public safety at Frequentis.

Now, feeds from CCTV, social media, voice and body-worn video are coming into the control room, each on a different set of systems that aren’t used to sharing with each other, Yann Marston, strategic sales UK and Ireland at Motorola Solutions, says, pointing out: “Integrating and managing those systems becomes a complete nightmare.”

It is resulting in the operator becoming a systems integrator, he says. “Having to know how systems work and how information can be mined to make a decision puts significant pressure on operators.”

New technology is being developed to manage this, including cloud platforms and applications that can enhance current control room solutions. But procurement is still a challenge: control rooms are mostly formed of disparate systems that come up for renewal at separate times, making it difficult to buy a unified solution.

Cloud concerns
Meanwhile, concerns around cloud continue, with control room managers worried about the level of resilience and security this technology brings in a life-or-death environment. But as more solutions become available, the industry is starting to move away from physical equipment, according to Chris Dreyfus-Gibson, vice chairman at the International Critical Control Rooms Alliance (ICCRA – a TCCA working group) and a consultant at PA Consulting.

“Historically, we have seen big server rooms with lots of kit enabling all your control room services. We are now seeing more vendors building solutions that don’t require all that equipment. This is important because space is a premium and also it has the potential to start enabling solutions in the cloud to change the way your control room operates.”

For example, rather than staff having to be physically in the control room, cloud enables new ways of working remotely. “If there’s a big incident, rather than having to buy in capacity, operators can go to their living room and start making calls,” Dreyfus-Gibson says.

Cloud also helps control rooms adjust their solution as demands change. “Normally people procure a solution which they use for five years and, during that time, their demands change,” says Mike Isherwood, managing director of APD Communications. “If you want to upgrade, you then have to get your chequebook out.”

There may be a lot of hype around the technology, but experts think the real-world benefits offered by cloud are starting to be realised. So, how should the technology be procured?

“My advice is, don’t think about cloud as a buzzword,” Isherwood says. “Think about what you are trying to achieve and give cloud a chance to show it can deliver what you need it to do.”

But at the same time, when considering cloud, Glyn Boswell, technical director at Saab Technologies UK, advises: “Look at the whole picture, including the cost of connectivity to cloud. Do your homework: look at the total cost of ownership and don’t assume it will be necessarily cheaper. It can be, but when you consider legacy apps, cloud should be seen as a migration activity.”

Meanwhile, he points out: “If now isn’t the time to move to cloud, it doesn’t stop you looking at flexible models. It’s not all or nothing – some services might be better cloud-hosted.”

Outcome-based tenders
Another trend being fuelled by changing technology is a move to outcome-based tenders, which experts say can lead to the procurement of better solutions. “I always ask clients what they want to see at the end,” says Dreyfus-Gibson. “If you ask for a technical requirement, you will get that, but it might not do what you want to at the end. It’s what you want the business outcome to be: the operational requirement must absolutely come first.”

According to van Loo: “We are changing from a supplier-driven market, where the supplier tells the customer what they can do, to a customer-driven market where the customer says, ‘I want to solve my business need and how can you take that on board?’”

But at the same time, control room managers will want to avoid vendor lock-in when procuring a new solution. “To avoid lock-in you have to be a little bit brave and buy from innovative companies, but that does not come without risk, so you have to be careful,” Teddy Zeh, control room consulting director at Frequentis, says.

According to Scott Morrison, vice-president of product marketing at Everbridge, vendor lock-in can be managed by choosing a vendor with an open platform which integrates with other key systems.

There is no need to become locked in, Dreyfus-Gibson says, because the other change in the market is a shift towards integrated, open solutions. Among the benefits, he says integrated solutions help the control room operate in a seamless way as far as the operator is concerned. “When dealing with a critical situation, I don’t have to boot up software and wait for it to load. It’s a better user experience and I can find information much more easily and am able to make better decisions.”

There is also the potential to procure a unified solution and deal with one vendor, even if contracts are coming to an end at different times. One way of managing this, which some control rooms are already doing, is to extend individual contracts so they all expire at the same time.

Boswell points out: “Contract end dates is a challenge: You need to talk to existing suppliers and negotiate contracts to get the same end date.”

There is never an ideal time to start with a clean slate, admits Simon Read, director of public safety at Saab Technologies UK. “There is an element of biting the bullet,” he says.

Boswell cites the example of one of Saab’s clients, Cheshire Police, which managed its procurement of a unified solution using an outcome-based tender.

Read adds: “Cheshire were the first police force in the country to come out with a unified solution tender. In the past, no-one had done this: every component would be independent of each other.”

He says there are cost advantages: “It’s one system to learn and maintain as opposed to multiple, and there’s one vendor to liaise with. But the biggest benefit is configurable workflow – beforehand they were constrained by the rigid workflow of the previous systems. But now, Cheshire has great ideas around how they can, for example, create workflows to automate incident dispatch.”

It worked for Cheshire, but many experts think starting with a clean slate is a bad idea. According to Marston: “When I speak to operations people, there are real training challenges if you introduce change too quickly: it can be a huge operational risk. A big bang isn’t really a good idea.”

So, how are control rooms currently procuring? They are both buying to replace and extending contracts so they can procure a unified solution, Dreyfus-Gibson says. However: “To be able to do a wholesale replacement is quite a luxury in the public sector. Justifying a big outlay is a stretch.”

He adds: “Certainly in policing, we see procurement frameworks for systems which shorten procurement time, but I still think most organisations replace things as contracts come to an end.”

Meanwhile, he advises: “You can write procurement requirements, so the product is able to integrate with other solutions.”

But even after you have selected and procured a solution, things can change, causing it to go out of date. To help futureproof your procurement, Morrison advises asking: “What is the vendor’s roadmap and how does it align with our strategy? Does the vendor have the ability to scale? What types of customer does that vendor already serve? If the vendor has an A-list of customers, they will be driven to continue to innovate.”

Dreyfus-Gibson adds: “One push especially from ICCRA is a standardised interface around products. You have to make it possible for users to do integration quickly and easily; standard interfaces make that easier. We will see more procurement asking for interfaces and APIs that are open.”

As control rooms themselves change, the procurement of solutions is transforming too. But it will take time to realise the benefits and, of course, caution must be applied in this complex and critical environment.

An end-user perspective: The changing control room
Michael Newburn is communications technology manager for the County of Fairfax, Virginia in the US. His control room is using Text to 9-1-1 as an alternative to voice calls and to better serve the hearing-impaired community.

So, what are control room managers looking for when they procure a product? “An understanding of how it will provide the core services, what needs will be addressed with products, and how it impacts staffing numbers and training,” Newburn says. “Does it provide the services the citizens expect? They need a clear understanding of why and when they would use it, as opposed to how to use it.”

In addition, he says: “What new skillsets will be required for staff to use new technologies?”

What to consider: The main dos & don’ts of procuring control rooms

  • Do consider open interfaces to avoid vendor lock-in. Boswell advises: “Ask how open an interface is. Also, be aware that some vendors charge a licence fee each time someone wants to use an interface.”
  • Do think strategically. Marston says: “Buying into incremental evolution could be a dead end. You might find that in four years’ time the system becomes obsolete.”
  • Do have a detailed and open conversation with vendors, even asking them how to structure your tender to be outcome-based. Dreyfus-Gibson advises: “Talk to vendors and tell them what you want, or they will offer what they think you want.”
  • Don’t go out for prescriptive tenders. Isherwood advises: “Start with the solution you want and work back to the technology you need to get there.”
  • Don’t forget your users. Isherwood advises control rooms to demand vendors spend time with their operations teams. “This is the biggest enabler of innovation.”
  • Don’t forget security, especially when considering the cloud. For example, Rehbehn advises: “Between a cloud service and control room should be a private network, not a VPN extension.”

For more information on this topic – read our previous article on control room procurement


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