Case study: British Red Cross improves command and control and enables interoperability with Airwave

The British Red Cross is a volunteer-led humanitarian organisation that helps people in crisis across the country. The organisation enables vulnerable people to prepare for and respond to emergencies in their own communities.

The British Red Cross is a volunteer-led humanitarian organisation that helps people in crisis across the country.  The organisation enables vulnerable people to prepare for and respond to emergencies in their own communities.

Testing under operational circumstances

Having contracted Airwave to provide it with a secure and resilient digital communications network, the British Red Cross tested the full range of functionalities provided by the service through a series of operational scenarios.  Designed to test the Airwave services’ limits, the exercise was carried out to determine the range of uses of the Airwave service for the British Red Cross teams as they respond to large-scale incidents.  In November 2010 at the 2,500 acre RAF bombing range at Tain, Easter Ross, 200 British Red Cross team members were asked to respond to emergency scenarios on land and water.  Supported by pilots of Highland Air Search who were acting as observers, locating, reporting and guiding rescuers to the emergency scenes, the exercise demonstrated using Airwave as a dedicated command and control platform, providing communication of strategic and tactical decisions to responders on the ground. 

Airwave is being used by the British Red Cross to communicate decisions from the organisation’s strategic and silver command teams to the tactical operatives on the ground.  During the exercise, the silver command team, based in the air traffic tower at Tain, had to oversee a scenario involving a search for missing persons on land and sea.  The complexity of the incident was increased by adding in further scenarios in real time, such as the ‘crash landing’ of a helicopter being involved in the mock search.

Ian Rideout, Operations Director, Northern Scotland at the British Red Cross commented: “Airwave worked well during the training scenarios, just as it has done during our daily operational use. The scenarios we put in place were demanding and specifically set to stretch resources, both in terms of people and equipment.  This was the first time we have used Airwave in such an exercise and it quickly became apparent that the service provided good coverage and quality and most importantly was useful in helping our command and control teams respond to the incidents.”

Airwave provided a communications platform for the command teams responding to the scenario.  It allowed them to communicate strategic decisions to the teams on the ground enabling an efficient response to the incidents the BRC had planned.  Rideout continued: “Airwave provided a clear and secure  comms link throughout the chain of command.  ”

Enabling interoperability

For the British Red Cross one of the factors behind its initial decision to sign up to the Airwave network was its ability to allow the British Red Cross to communicate with other agencies, most importantly the police.  During the exercise one of the British Red Cross teams took on the role of the police so that the organisation could simulate point-to-point interoperation at the scene of a large-scale incident.  Ian Rideout noted that this ability is proving key not only to the successful resolution of the training exercise but also to the successful operation of its regular work with the police. 

As he explains:  “Airwave has been useful in that it now allows us to talk directly with the police.  In fact, the police now use Airwave to contact us for any sort of callout.  The security of the Airwave system along with its ease of use has made it a useful tool for staying in touch with this key partner agency.”

It is not just the ability to interoperate with the police that is proving of benefit to the British Red Cross.  As all 21 of its operational areas are on the service, the British Red Cross can share resources nationally.  When there is a major incident where the establishment of an on-scene command and control structure is not possible, Airwave enables all call logs to be routed via the organisation’s Newcastle headquarters, establishing a virtual command facility.

“This is important for us”, says Rideout, “as it gives us flexibility.  For the exercise in November we had an on-site command facility, but the benefits of interoperability proved themselves in other ways.  We had boats, planes and helicopters all able to communicate with each other and with the spotters on the ground.  As you can imagine, for a land and sea-based search scenario this is a useful tool.”

The coverage offered by the Airwave service was also a consideration of the training exercise.  Airwave offers national radio coverage for its services, an important factor for the British Red Cross which has to operate both in remote locations and several miles off shore.  During the exercise, five boats were involved in the search scenario off the coast of Scotland.  Throughout, Airwave provided the crews with communications with the command structure, enabling them to react to any changes in the situation.

Ian Rideout concludes.  “When our command teams need to communicate Airwave works first time and regardless of location.  It helps us to manage incidents, helping our human resources to get where they are needed, when they are needed.  Moreover we can now interoperate nationally and with other agencies, allowing us to coordinate our efforts. ”

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