Airwave denies London riots radio problems

The communications firm has dismissed as 'entirely inaccurate' a Police Federation report blaming technical problems for a slow response during the disturbances

The emergency services communications provider Airwave has denied allegations in a police report that its radio network was overloaded during the first two days of the London riots.

London riots

Airwave has labelled 'entirely inaccurate' a police report that says its communications system suffered technical problems during the London riots in August. Photo credit: Nicobobinus/Flickr

The Police Federation, which is reviewing the performance of the police during the disturbances in August, said on Thursday that the strategic co-ordination of the policing response was hampered by "significant local technical difficulties with the (London) Airwave network that were compounded by force equipment compatibility issues".

"A direct consequence of communication failures was the use of unofficial channels," the submission (PDF) to Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) read. "Officers on the ground and in command resorted, in the majority, to the use of personal mobile phones to co-ordinate a response."

The report noted that officers "kept arriving at areas where the disorder had already been dispersed and moved on", and were constantly half an hour behind the rioters.

'Entirely inaccurate'

Airwave, which was sold by O2 to private equity funds managed by Australia's Macquarie in 2007, said on Sunday that the Police Federation had got it wrong.

"We want to make it absolutely clear that this information is entirely inaccurate," Airwave said in a statement. "Despite the unprecedented levels of police officers and other emergency service users accessing the network, we are proud that it operated exactly as it is designed to, providing an extremely high level of service to officers from 26 different police forces and the ambulance and fire services."

Airwave added that it was "disappointed that the Police Federation did not think it appropriate to talk to Airwave or other police bodies responsible for communications prior to compiling their report".

The Police Federation would not give a response to Airwave's statement, when asked for comment on Monday. London's Metropolitan Police also refused to comment on specific points raised in the report, as the review is ongoing.

Last year, an Airwave router software fault knocked out radio communications for some of Scotland's police and fire services, with firefighters turning to their mobile phones for communications as a result. 

In its report, the Police Federation also addressed the role that social media played during the riots. Although BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) and Twitter "allowed rioters to muster, co-ordinate and perpetuate misinformation with unprecedented rapidity", the report stated, the police also found the social networks to be quite useful.

"Monitoring social networks provided essential intelligence that was not, and would not, have been available through conventional methods," the report said. "There was already a significant intelligence deficit before the disorder and monitoring social media communications was one of the only intelligence sources available."

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