Radio for events: In the summertime
Written by: Jamie Lawrance | Published:

With the warmer weather bringing a crowded programme of outdoor events, Jamie Lawrance of Roadphone NRB discusses the work that goes into temporary radio installations

Radio was very different when we first started with hire. We were doing a lot of industrial shutdowns for factories and power stations. The events side grew in the 1990s as radios became more affordable. Event comms started because people saw that two-way radio does one thing very, very well: instant communications.

I guess it was fuelled by mobile phones, because suddenly people realised that they could talk to each other with a mobile phone. But, of course, a mobile phone falls short of the requirements of event communications. I ring you to ask where you’ve put whichever widget I’m looking for on the site, and you say, “I don’t know, ring Fred.” So, I’ve made seven phone calls before I find the widget. But with a radio group call, everybody gets it.

A lot of the events we cover are either in the middle of a very large city, which gives you the capacity, or in a green field in the middle of nowhere, where the networks don’t tend to put high capacity in, even if they have coverage at all, because sheep don’t use mobile phones.

Kick-starting the season
We’ve just had a big weekend: the Grand National [at Aintree] and the Brighton Marathon. We had teams at both because we do on-site logistical support, giving out radios. We have an electronic booking-out system, so all the users come to us. That was one weekend, with 750 radios at the Grand National, and 600-plus at Brighton.

The next big one for me, being at the Paris office, is Roland Garros [the French Open tennis tournament]. I’m off to start the build for that. That’s 900-plus radios. Also in May we have the Champions League and Europa League finals. We do the radios for the season for both those competitions, but the finals are very, very big events, with 600-plus radios [for each].

Also with our [DMR] Tier III systems, we’re now doing a lot of conferences, product launches. We’ve got a two-site system going down to the South of France for a leading social network, one of their annual gatherings. Then there’s the traditional music events. But taking the technology forward tends to be more on the sporting side, just because of the scale of it, and also the conference work. To give you an idea of what we’ve done recently, we did two major car launches with a mixture of Tier III and Tier II systems.

Another interesting one was Mobile World Congress. We put in a Tier III solution, so that each one of their clients got their own virtual system, but we still maintained control over all. If there’s any major incident, we can do hierarchical group calls within it and get people talking and keep everything working together.

Preparing for an event
A lot of the events we do, we’ve supported those events for many, many years. So, we start planning almost immediately after the last event finishes. Once a major event finishes, we’re there with the debrief notes, how we can improve everything, and that’s sent in to the client.

If we take something like music awards, which we’ve been involved in heavily, that type of event travels around. Maybe six months before, you start to get the calls to say, “We are having a site visit, can you come along and do the site surveys?” We’ve got to guarantee that these systems give the coverage and the amount of capacity they need, and the only way you can do that is to go to site, set up a test transmitter and measure the signals. You can’t work it out from a plan because you don’t know what’s going to evolve in the event.

Then a month out from the event, we are starting to gather final radio numbers. We have a rough idea of numbers, but because we are on-site doing logistics with our system, we are then preloading that system with all the people that need the equipment, what equipment they need and everything else.

With a conference, they really enjoy the fact that the [DMR] radio channels are quiet and the radio rings when somebody wants them. Anything that needs a broadcast goes out to the group. But for that, we need to load the radios with the contact list so they know who to talk to. The Tier III systems have over-the-air programming, so when you are on the event you can change that list. But we still have to plan for that.

As soon as we get the frequencies, which is normally three weeks before, we build the systems, preprogram them, do all the final testing to make sure everything is OK. It’s shipped to site – it could be anywhere in Europe – and when we arrive on-site, we install the system.

Getting it right
If you look at the Grand National, there is so much pressure for that event to deliver because of the worldwide TV audience. It’s the same with a UEFA final – it has to happen on time, and we have to make sure that everything works there.

We have to look at what could happen during and leading up to the event. Electrical failure: have we got back-up systems on everything? If there was, for instance, a power outage across the venue, suddenly you’re into evacuation and crowd control – that’s when you really need the radio system.

For certain events we put back-up systems in, in case the main system disappears for whatever reason – and you can probably guess some of the reasons we have to think about.

Because we’re planning this so far out in advance, the final needs may change hours before the event. Again, with Tier III and modern digital systems, if somebody comes to us and says, “I’ve completely forgotten that we need an extra group to run this particular operation”, we go, “OK, no problem, which radios need that group?” Over-the-air programming, let’s send that through.

When you look at traditional radio systems years ago, we would need a frequency, a repeater – but now it’s just a case of a reprogram on the system.

We always build extra capacity into the systems anyway, so this is just a contingency. With some of these events, maybe we need to instantly make up an incident group, and it’s great for that.

Educating the users
When those people come in, they maybe only use the radio once a year. Our guys are trained to teach them the radio etiquette, to start off with, and how the radio operates. So, we’ll run through how you make a call, receive a call, how you change channel – or, in the case of the Tier III systems, here’s how you make an individual call, here’s how to rename the people in the list (we do it for them sometimes), how to make up a favourites list of people you call over and over again.

We try to make things as simple as possible for the user. So, any feature that everybody wants to use, we try to preprogram one of the side buttons on the radio to do that feature. And we try to keep it simple. In an ideal world, we would have a manager feature set, a normal user feature set, and we teach people just the bare minimum.

The great thing about the on-site logistics is, because we take over everything, we take over the management of the batteries as well. So, our own guys are then charging the batteries, doing battery swaps for people coming to our office once a day. We monitor the systems during the event – if we see a user not using the radio properly, next time they come in, we can go, “By the way, did you know you could do it like this?” There’s a certain amount of retraining throughout the event.

Advanced applications
We have some demand for GPS, certainly when we do a thing like an Iron Man competition or a triathlon – they like to know where the lead car is, the tail car, the lead runner, if there is a guy on a bike that must shadow the lead runner. Give them a radio with GPS!

Short data messaging, SMS, is very good, especially [for] conferences. If you need to put out a message very quickly to all your radio users – it doesn’t necessarily need to be something that interrupts their normal flow, it could be “We’re going to open the gates 10 minutes late” – that information can be sent on SMS.

It could be circulating the description of a missing child, which is a message you don’t want broadcast over the radio. But a short data message to everybody saying “Look out for this missing child” and a description is a perfect use for SMS.

With permanent systems, you are starting to see things like indoor location being available through iBeacons on Bluetooth 4.0-enabled radios. I think that will come eventually onto our systems as they become more integrated. At the moment, the data side of it is possibly under-utilised.

Some of this is being led by the customers giving us a problem. They know what their basic requirements are, but they are not radio engineers and they are not experts in communications. That’s where the experience comes in.

Jamie Lawrance is hire manager for Roadphone NRB and now the manager of its French branch. He was speaking to Richard Lambley

Showtime: Linking DMR Tier III with video production
One recent innovation by Roadphone NRB was to integrate a DMR Tier III event network with the ‘show comms’ system used in televising the associated conference sessions. “The keynote will normally be the heads of this particular hi-tech, high-profile company,” explains Jamie Lawrance (pictured below). “They will stream that to social media, their own internal network or whoever. That means a lot of production – you’ve got cameras, sound, a feed, everything working together. The show comms is traditionally a wired system or possibly a low-range wireless system that allows the director to talk to the cameras, AV, everybody.

“A lot of the timings depend on that keynote. So, when the director presses the button to talk to (let’s say) everybody to do with seating the delegates at the beginning, that would also go out on the delegate relations radio channel. With that being a Tier III radio system, we get all the benefits of being able to do individual calling and everything else for the event.

“It’s been done with talkback and analogue radios before quite widely, but to integrate that into a 315-radio, multi-group, multichannel system is something quite different.”


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