Airwave router fault takes Scots firefighters off air

The emergency radio provider has said that two-way radios worked throughout the fault, but firefighters claim they had to use mobile phones overnight
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor on

The company that provides digital wireless communications for the UK's emergency services has said a software issue caused a service outage in Scotland last week.

Airwave told ZDNet UK on Wednesday that a software problem in one of its routers had caused the outage last Wednesday, which affected fire services across Scotland, as well as a Scottish police force.

"We did have a small problem. The outage was an issue to do with a router," said the company's UK client services director David Sangster. "We've taken the logs to analyse the issue."

Airwave for Scottish fire services is called Firelink. Sangster said Airwave lost its Firelink data connection at around 15:00pm, which affected all of Scotland's fire services. At around 17:00pm, Strathclyde police also lost data connectivity, said Sangster, prompting Airwave to switch the entire radio network over to its backup system.

"Services went to our mirror system, and there was no issue with our mirror cluster," said Sangster.

Voice connectivity was not lost, and firefighters had no need to use mobile phones, Sangster told ZDNet UK.

At least one fire service did have to use mobile phones to communicate, however, according to a source at Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue Service. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Lothian Services only got back up and running properly late on Thursday morning.

"We had a partial, intermittent service," said the source. "We expect to be able to speak to the control room, but we have fallback procedures which allow firefighters to use mobile phones if need be."

Airwave operates its services using a number of switches around the country. Emergency services in different parts of the country use different switches and failover to different mirror networks. Lothian and Borders fails over to a switch and mirror network in the north-east of England.

Both the Scottish switch and the north-east England switch experienced problems last Wednesday, said the source on Tuesday.

"Last week there was a problem with the Scottish switch," said the source. "Our stand-by [north-east England] switch caused problems of loss of connectivity."

The Scottish contract with Airwave is held by the Scottish government, and centrally enforced. Scottish fire services have no choice but to use Airwave, said the source.

The part of the Scottish government ultimately responsible for fire services is the Justice Department. A spokesperson for the Justice Department told ZDNet UK on Wednesday that no fire service voice connectivity had been lost last week.

"This is the most advanced communications system in the UK and unlike many older systems, Airwave is designed to be resilient with highly-effective backup systems in place for any eventuality," said the spokesperson. "As such, the advanced backup system activated, ensuring that communications and operational capacity were maintained."

The spokesperson admitted that the Justice Department had not talked to Lothian and Borders fire service about loss of connectivity, but instead had formulated its statement in conjunction with Airwave.

Airwave said on Wednesday that Lothian and Borders' loss of connectivity could have been to do with the fire services' internal procedures.

"The statement that the [fire and rescue service] had to use mobile phones might be true, but Airwave voice functionality was not lost," said an Airwave spokesperson. "The reason they may have had to use mobile phones is the way the individual [fire and rescue service] uses the Airwave system and, because of that, should a failure occur with packet data, then they follow their own agreed process. If their working practices were different, then they could have communicated by voice as that functionality was always there."

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