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Photo: Policing the depths of the Tube

Airwave carries emergency services into London Underground
By Nick Heath, Contributor on
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1 of 6 Nick Heath/ZDNET

Airwave carries emergency services into London Underground

Almost 40 foot below sea level in Westminster Tube station, a police officer fires up a radio.

The call is made possible by the Airwave emergency communication system which now works throughout London Underground.

With Airwave working underground for the first time, no part of the metro system's 250 miles of tunnels will be outside police communications coverage.

The system links 125 sub surface stations, bridging the coverage gap that left emergency services struggling to communicate in the tunnels around Russell Square in the wake of the July 2005 bombings.

The £107m system was fully operational by December 2008, five months ahead of schedule, and has funding to run until 2018.

Speaking at a demonstration of Airwave today, deputy chief constable of British Transport Police (BTP) Andy Trotter said: "From an operational point of view this will give us exactly the same abilities underground that we have overground.

"I was on duty throughout the 7/7 bombings and being able to communicate while managing the recovery operation in Russell Square would have made a very big difference."

Photo credit: National Policing Improvement Agency

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The system links the Metropolitan, British Transport and the City of London police forces, as well as the fire and ambulance services.

However, as the fire and ambulance Airwave systems have not yet gone fully live they currently rely on loaned police Airwave radios during incidents.

Here policing minister Vernon Coaker discusses the benefits of the system.

Coaker said: "The benefits are obvious to me, just from hearing officers say that, for the first time, they can connect to other officers or the PNC [Police National Computer] when dealing with a violent or terrorist incident underground."

BTP officers told how tackling violent or unruly travellers on the underground will be much easier with Airwave, as officers can radio fellow officers or the control room for help, as well as send and receive data or access the PNC, the UK police's central database.

Previously, officers had to send a colleague above ground to radio for help, cutting their manpower when tackling often volatile situations.

Photo credit: Nick Heath/silicon.com

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The Airwave system has come under fire from the Police Federation, the union for rank and file officers, for dropping communications while being used on the beat.

The BTP's Trotter admitted that the system could be put under strain during large events, such as New Year's Eve celebrations, but said it is operating well.

"With any new system there will be challenges and it is true there have been challenges with some major events without a doubt, but this is a massive improvement over anything we have had before," he said.

Chief executive of the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), chief constable Peter Neyroud, said the system could be easily expanded to support extra users during the London 2012 Olympics.

"We are going to build in additional resilience capabilities for the Olympics, all of the boxes at the stations have been built so you can slot in extra capacity as required, even on a temporary basis if necessary," he added.

Minister Coaker, seen here examining a radio being used at Westminster Underground Station, said that discussions over the need for extra capacity for the Olympics are "ongoing".

Photo credit: Nick Heath/silicon.com

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The project saved cash by piggybacking Airwave capabilities on the existing Connect digital trunk system, used for communication by Transport for London workers on London Underground, rather then building a entirely new infrastructure.

Here is a police handset being used to make a call underground.

Photo credit: Nick Heath/silicon.com

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The system works via a network of "leaky feeder" relay cables that pick up a signal in one station, carries it along and then drop it within range of another "leaky feeder".

Navigating the rabbit warren of tunnels in each station to get coverage in every nook and cranny was a constant challenge, according to the NPIA's Neyroud.

"These are enormously complicated spaces - for example, look at Waterloo and the number of tunnels and escalators and the links you have to build to provide coverage," he said.

This diagram shows a feeder stretching down a tunnel and into a station to give full coverage.

Photo credit: National Policing Improvement Agency

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Managing director of London Underground Tim O'Toole said: "[Airwave] allows us to expand the communication capacity in all our stations and trains.

"Previously there were 19 different radio systems used in London Underground and they were all quite old.

"Now if one part of the system goes down it is quite easy to reroute it."

Here is the control room for the Westminster Underground Station.

Photo credit: Nick Heath/silicon.com

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