Talking resilience

Not one network will be resilient enough in the future of critical communications according to the Government and industry. Added focus from recent events is spurring on an impetus to develop an infrastructure that will cope with a major terrorist attack or natural disaster.

May 3, 2007
By Paul Lander
Helen McEntee. Picture: PA Media

Not one network will be resilient enough in the future of critical communications according to the Government and industry. Added focus from recent events is spurring on an impetus to develop an infrastructure that will cope with a major terrorist attack or natural disaster.

Following the July 7 bombings and Hurricane Katrina, public service mobile networks could not cope with the demands. A project to consider the implications has identified weaknesses in resilience across other telecommunications services and urgent attention is being given to considering solutions.

The attack on the World Trade Centre in New York spawned huge programmes of investment in communications. The city is investing more than $500 million on data communications for public safety users.

Following a number of recent incidents, not least highlighted by this week’s conviction of five terrorists who were recorded discussing blowing up the country’s power infrastructure, the UK is also now waking up to the prospect of communications failure on a larger scale than ever seen before.

Bruce Mann, director of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat at the Cabinet Office, told delegates at last week’s BAPCO conference that parts of the resilience community, including the Cabinet Office, have been “slightly asleep on watch” in failing to learn lessons about difficulties in communications from the Manchester Tunnel fire, Boscastle and Cumbria natural disasters. So when it came to look at mobile phone use after July 7, other forms of communication were included in the resilience review.

Mr Mann described the review’s strategy as to understand and ameliorate weaknesses in communications resilience, to understand where the weaknesses are between emergency service responders in a crisis and to identify and respond to any implications.

“The issues the strategy will address include: a lack of a coherent approach within the responder community (not just blue-lights services) even though there are concepts of interoperability; a lack of knowledge within organisations and individuals of issues involved – many have made invalid and sweeping statements about capabilities; limited ownership outside of specialists; protocols operating without systematic relationships to each other; and limited knowledge of entitlement,” he said.

The Government’s aim is to ensure effective communication and that information can be shared among those that need to share. “It is slightly odd that no existing niche product can keep communications across the country in the worst emergency. We do not share information across the country,” Mr Mann explained. “On July 7, we spent a huge amount of time sharing information, using Microsoft and the GSI, about what was going on in London, just in case the next attacks were not in London but were in Leeds, Newcastle or Manchester. We mashed it together reasonably successfully with string and paper. We need to do better than that in an emergency.”

The Government’s view is that no single system will be adequate or sufficiently resilient to achieve the goals of the strategy. “You are relying on a single point of failure not failing – that is not a good way of operating. We have to do something about making existing telecommunications networks, including Airwave, more resilient to deal with the anticipated impact of major emergencies – exploiting those networks that already have a high degree of embedded resilience. Making those privileged services that are not fit-for-purpose, fit-for-purpose, and making sure that existing diversity is known to emergency responders. If they don’t function in a way that meets operational needs, tackling that too, passing information back to the resilience community in each area about the take-up of privileged services and the diversity of communications within a local response area.”

The strategy for telecommunications takes on the assumptions from other areas of resilience and business continuity planning

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