How well would your organisation cope in the event of a major power outage, extreme weather or civil emergency? How effectively would you be able to respond to a Black Start? And how would you communicate with engineers on the ground, to get hydroelectric operations up and running as quickly as possible, in order to get power back to people and businesses?

To help mitigate any risk to our national infrastructure and ensure an effective response, the UK Government set up its Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) back in 2001 – business continuity planning which places responsibility firmly on the shoulders of the utility and energy sector to restore vital services within a given time, in the event of a major incident.

Now I don’t wish to be alarmist. Or maybe I do. Because many of our utility companies are currently ill-equipped for civil contingency planning, or more accurately, it is their GSM mobile communications network which is not adequately resilient to cope in the event of a major outage.

So why exactly are GSM networks unsuitable for use in an emergency network, and why were they therefore deployed in the first place?

A condensed history of utility communications

When the utilities were nationalised organisations, they operated as discrete self-managed vertical structures with a privately owned, bespoke PMR communications network which was controlled and operated by the company itself.

However, with privatisation came the drive for cost savings and greater efficiency, and non-core activities were outsourced. As a result, many utilities companies made the switch from PMR to GSM mobile services, which offered outsourced managed services and the promise of reducing overheads through benefits of economies of scale.

Communications for incident management

The very nature of GSM services is that they are managed by someone else, and that reduces the level of control the utility companies have over their communications infrastructure when they most need it – for incident management.

It’s taken some of the most shocking terrorist attacks of recent years for the full implication of this to hit home – New York, Madrid, London. When London was bombed during the 7/7 incidents, public mobile networks were put under incredible stress as demand outstripped supply and people caught up in the incidents and subsequent gridlock reached for their mobile phones. As the repercussions rippled out across London’s travel infrastructure, so did mobile phone demand – creating increasing demand upon mobile networks.

Whether as a consequence of global warming or statistical aberration, recent years have also seen a similar increase in natural disasters. The recent floods in the South and East of England serve as a reminder of the absolute devastation experienced in New Orleans. In each of these cases the demands and stresses placed upon power supply resources has been put into sharp focus.

Central to this increasing anxiety are the potential implications of a major section of the national grid being taken down. In such circumstances effective communications become the very basis of emergency operations. However, commercial mobile networks use mains power and cannot withstand prolonged power cuts. They have limited battery backup, which once exhausted, would leave engineers working to restore vital utilities unable to communicate.

This raises the spectre of the Black Start, and how to rebuild a power network and get key utilities functioning again without any power. And if critical workers are unable to use their mobile phones as there is no network availability or battery backup, then even the best-laid contingency plans would effectively be worthless, as there is no way of communicating with the man on the ground – the engineers tasked with implementing the plans and getting the network up and running again.

Taking back control

It’s not that commercial GSM networks are not fit for purpose. They are. But fit for commercial purpose is different from being fit for the extreme needs of incident management. Overall public mobile networks can boast impressive network performance, because overall demand is well understood and because the Mobile operators are excellent managers of aggregated demand.

The problem is that specific incidents create intensely concentrated and localised communications demands. Demands that just cannot be reconciled within aggregate demand models. Given the fact that GSM simply cannot cope in times of crisis, there is clearly a need to review current communications strategies, and look to a solution that guarantees continuity of communications.

For truly resilient, emergency-ready communications, a dedicated network is needed. And put simply, that means PMR.

PMR has continued to thrive in a number of key market sectors, where there is a need for guaranteed channels of communication in the event of an emergency. Take airport operations or the police force, for example. It is vital that they have complete control over their communications network to cope with any contingency.

Try telling them that you are going to put all their communications on a public network, and you would get very short shrift indeed. What if the network shuts down when everyone is calling to wish each other a happy new year? Public technologies like cellular simply cannot guarantee the same service levels and security as a private radio based network.

The advantage of a PMR system for utility and energy companies is that it is a bespoke system, tailored to meet the operational and contingency planning needs of the individual company. As a result, you know that every square inch of the area you operate in will have radio coverage, even the most rural outposts, where mobile reception is a faint to non-existent.

Now more than ever, we have an increased awareness of civil emergencies, and the need to have in place robust communications strategies, in order to cope with these eventualities. What’s clear is that we need the right mode of communication for the right situation.

PMR technology, like all IT, has come on in leaps and bounds, with plug-and-play functionality, IP compatibility and software configurable standard components. By combining the low capital cost and flexibility advantages of analogue PMR with the system management and low cost-of-ownership benefits of IP technology, PMR can be modernised, giving users the best of both worlds. Now they can connect to a base station via the Web and reconfigure a controller without having to send an engineer to a remote windswept hilltop.

A case in point: Western Power

Leading utility company Western Power is a prime example of the growing trend towards PMR. The company is carrying out a major £5m upgrade of its communications network, providing complete voice and data comms to support over 10,000 network calls per day and boosting resilience across a service area of 26,000km2.

A key consideration for Western Power was the need to ensure that any new system would continue to be secure and resilient during emergency situations, which is why they opted for a PMR system.

The Xfin Multisite system from Team Simoco will provide coverage across some of the most diverse terrain in the UK, from highly populated urban areas such as Bristol and Cardiff, to rural and coastal areas such as Dartmoor, the Brecon Beacons, Cornwall and the Gower.

The IP core of the system has enabled the integration of generic utility applications and interfaces, enabling it to be effectively integrated into the existing infrastructure. Xfin’s remote diagnostics enable centralised management control, and its hot-swap modular replacement enables live system maintenance without loss of service, which was also a key consideration for Western Power in such a large, distributed network.

The upgrade has been developed to not only ensure enhanced voice and data communications between staff, but to also enable Western Power to meet its responsibilities for civil contingency planning, by providing robust communications channels for staff to communicate in times of emergency.

Could you say the same for your company’s communications infrastructure, and would it stand up in the event of a civil emergency? It’s a question of the right mode of communication for the right job – will you be able to communicate with your engineers if the lights go out?

Mike Norfield, MD of radio communications specialist Team Simoco.