How to buy control rooms
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:
Simon Read, director of public safety UK at Saab Defence and Security

Big changes are in store for control rooms, but there are differing philosophies when it comes to procurement. Sam Fenwick has the details

There is a tidal wave of change bearing down on control rooms, and while it’s for the right reasons and will benefit user organisations and the public, trying to manage the adoption of myriad interconnected technologies would be taxing in any environment, let alone one where downtime is not an option and life-or-death decisions are made on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

The situation is made yet more complicated by the fact that control room operators and their working practices must change significantly in the coming years, requiring additional training at a time when the number of people is dropping as control rooms consolidate.

In addition to the growing use of broadband devices by public safety first-responders, there are initiatives such as Next Generation 9-1-1 in the US, which Alexander Richardson, market analyst, control rooms, emergency response & critical communications at IHS Markit, says is “trying to get every public safety answering point (PSAP) to be able to take text messages, images and video”. However, he says that as call-takers are so focused on handling voice, this transition will require a lot of training and change management. There is also eCall and other programmes to allow automatic reporting of vehicle crashes, requiring measures to reduce the impact of false alerts, while APD’s Mike Isherwood cites blockchain, big data, AI and augmented reality [See the article on control rooms that was published in issue 38 of TETRA Today – Ed].

“Everybody wants the latest and greatest technology, but it doesn’t always necessarily make sense for your specific agency, and then of course you have to take a look at the funding,” Richardson adds. “Are you going to be able to buy [it]? Do you have enough cashflow to perform the maintenance and upgrades? I would say most suppliers offer very good equipment, but it’s just a matter of whether they can tailor it to your specific application, your operations and the way you handle call-taking and dispatching.”

Simon Read (pictured above), director of public safety UK at Saab Defence and Security (which supplies SAFE, a unified communications platform), highlights the fact that many organisations opted for extra equipment to allow their legacy telephony equipment to work with the new IP equipment, “but it was proprietary IP, it wasn’t SIP, it wasn’t advanced”.

Now, he says, the trend is to retire such systems in favour of something that has been “designed from the start to be IP, virtualised and to be hosted and cloud-based”.

Read also makes the point that a “modern solution that supports legacy radio systems is totally different from a legacy system that supports modern radio”, and that compared with Airwave, the system needed to be able to support the Emergency Services Network (ESN) is “really feature-rich, but simpler”.

Read says it makes more sense to replace as many legacy systems as possible with a single solution, to reduce the costs associated with the complexity created by using and managing many different suppliers, and that the current control room ecosystem with its components as they are currently defined wouldn’t be selected as the best approach if someone – an “intelligent alien” – were starting from scratch with today’s technology.

He adds that Transport for London has gone live with Saab’s SAFE system, which is scheduled to go live with Cheshire police force in September and Warwickshire and West Mercia in December. The system does make use of open-source software from other parties – “we don’t reinvent the wheel” – and is structured around workflows rather than traditional components such as ICCS (Integrated Communication Control System) and CAD (computer-aided dispatch).

Weighing in on the one versus many supplier question, Richardson says that the one supplier model is the ideal approach, “because that way you have to work with fewer people and it’s so much easier to do the upgrades and the maintenance if you use one supplier. The market is headed that way. That’s how it should be, it just makes it a lot easier for the end-users.”

Matt Palmer, Capita’s control rooms product manager, says converged solutions have many benefits over procuring separate components: they result in a less complex implementation with fewer interfaces, have reduced overall support costs and a simplified IT infrastructure to support, and require significantly less training, reducing the time needed for users to get up to speed on a new system.

He also says it can result in a more efficient and streamlined business process, through removing double-keying and providing a more intuitive user experience. One issue Palmer identifies with going down the separate component route is that it makes it much harder (and more expensive) to implement change, as there are more parties involved with their own individual roadmaps, increasing the potential for conflicting priorities and user interfaces.

In addition, companies that supply single solutions tend to have larger investment budgets for their ongoing roadmaps than separate component suppliers.

However, not everyone agrees that the single supplier route is the best way to go. Reinard van Loo, senior advisor/subject matter expert, public safety at Frequentis, says his company has “been down that route in the past and we found it a hard sell because customers want to get some return on investment on things they bought two years ago, they can’t just turn it off when something new and shiny comes along, but also as a customer, you’re then handcuffed to that one supplier and every change has to go through them. We believe that we have to open up the systems landscape and be more flexible... it makes sense to us and the customer.”

Van Loo draws parallels with a wider trend: “Look at what’s happening on the internet: you can create a lot more benefits by offering others deep access to your services in their applications than by trying to do everything yourself. It also makes business sense: e.g. eBay makes 60 per cent of its revenue this way. No single supplier does everything you need now or in the future in the control room environment. Open-standards-based access to services is key so that control room solutions can be provided, built using integration platforms making use of functionalities from select companies as they become available in a fast-moving market. Proprietary, closed products hinder our customers’ [ability] to react efficiently to an ever-changing world.”

Another factor that needs to be considered is the time it takes for procurement. “The OJEU [Official Journal of the European Union] procurement practices are completely, in my humble opinion, outdated,” says Peter Prater, key account manager at Frequentis.

“You will not achieve constant evolution while you’re worrying about how to procure kit that takes you about two years to buy. We’ve got to find a better way of procuring solutions.”

While opinions differ and end-users have opted for both single- and multi-supplier routes, the decision requires a great deal of thought, especially given the sheer amount of change on the horizon, the squeeze on spending and the resulting push to continually deliver better services for less.

An end-user perspective
At BAPCO 2017, Sarah Wilson, head of North West Fire Control, a company in the UK that operates a single control room for four English fire and rescue services (FRSs), and its operations manager, Mandy Liffen, discussed how their system has accommodated the differing needs of each fire service (such as wildly varying risk profiles for the regions they serve and the innovative crewing models that have arisen due to funding pressures) and helped maintain their independence. Wilson said they have telent acting as their prime contractor and integrator, providing the control room’s technology as a managed service, while Hexagon provides its I/CAD computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system, with the ICCS provided by Frequentis. Wilson said the resulting system has accommodated all the needs they identified and it “is also a pretty configurable and future-proof system that we feel will continue to take us forward”.

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