Concerns have been raised about delays in implementing Airwave radio systems within emergency services in London, to ensure full coverage in the event of a terrorist attack.

The London Assembly 7 July Review Committee has warned that London Ambulance Service would be ill prepared for another underground terrorist attack due to continuous postponements of Airwave go-live dates.

In its fourth review on the response to the London bombings of 7 July 2005, the Assembly warns: “We are concerned about the delays that have occurred in establishing digital radio communications within the emergency services in London, especially the London Ambulance Service (which is part of a national project), and by the emergence of significant problems relating to coverage.”

The Department of Health awarded a contract for a new digital radio and communication system for all NHS ambulance trusts in England in July 2005.

Airwave rollout significantly delayed

The O2 Airwave network was awarded the contract worth £390m for the next 13 years, and was meant to start with implementation in London by summer 2007.

However, in its report, the committee highlights the extent to which the project has been delayed: “There has been some delay in the timetable for implementing Airwave across the service. At our meeting in November 2005 we were told that the London Ambulance Service was expecting to begin distributing Airwave radios in 2006 and complete the rollout in 2007. We were then told, in November 2006, that the rollout would begin in summer 2007 and be completed by the first quarter of 2008. In its update to the Committee in June 2007, the London Ambulance Service tells us that rollout will start in September 2007 and be completed by September 2008.”

The London Ambulance Service told the committee that the delays are the result of “a number of contractual and technical changes and problems that have led to some delay (despite the considerable effort to minimise this).”

Explaining this in more detail, the report says: “There are significant concerns related to Airwave capacity in London. To provide the contracted Airwave Service capacity for the London Ambulance Service, it will be necessary to upgrade a significant number of base stations across London. This must be completed before the next contractual milestone which allows us to start the vehicle installations in September.

“Additionally there is a review of the current status of the national programme and Trust milestones being conducted by the [Department of Health] programme team. This may well result in some changes to the London programme’”

A London Ambulance spokesperson declined to comment about the delays to the system, but told E-Health Insider: “We have acknowledged we faced difficulties with communications that day [7 July], but this did not prevent us treating and transporting more than 400 patients to hospital from all the sites within three hours.

“The Airwaves system will be a new digital system that will be more resilient in the event of another major incident and will provide better communications in hard to reach places between offices on the ground and our call centre system.”

Despite these delays, the committee also praises the London Ambulance Service for having taken appropriate action since the last report was published in November 2006 and putting in place new procedures for dealing with major incidents.

The need for new radios was highlighted by the attacks to the London Underground network on 7/7. Emergency services were unable to liaise with each other in reaching victims, resulting in scenes of chaos and confusion.

Worryingly, the report by the committee warns: “There has been a lack of clarity over the timing of the implementation of digital radios across the emergency services in London, with different timetables provided by the Home Office, the London Resilience Forum and the emergency services.”

The system has been fully implemented by the British Transport Police and the City of London Police, but the report says ‘coverage on the London Underground was not included in the original national plans and business case of Airwave radios.’

Hardware and software issues

Pilots by the Metropolitan Police have also uncovered a series of software issues, including radios unexpectedly resetting themselves and backlight functions not working properly. Problems also include failure of the emergency activation function resulting from incorrect activation or being out of coverage when the button is pressed.

There were also hardware issues such as limitations in battery life and difficulties in achieving the appropriate level of training amongst officers using the new radios.

Until issues such as this are fixed, London Underground has advised emergency services to rely on leaky feeders – a type of cable which can be used to provide two-way radio traffic inside tunnels and buildings. There are now four to seven trucks around London containing the equipment needed to use the cabling.

The 7 July Review Committee warn: “We are concerned that London’s emergency services are putting all their eggs in one basket by relying on Airwave radios. If Personal Role Radios and / or other similar technologies are not a viable option then clearly they should not be used. But we are not convinced that serious consideration has been given to their potential use, and this gives us cause for concern.”

They are, however, satisfied with London Underground’s plans to have Airwave operational underground on all lines by August 2008.

Major improvements in place

Overall the committee concludes that major improvements to emergency plans and procedures have been put in place as a result of lessons learned from the emergency response to the 2005 bombings.

Of the 54 recommendations the committee made last year in its initial investigation into the bombings, 40 have now been either accepted, fully or partially implemented, or seen significant progress made in addressing the issues raised.

Committee chairman Richard Barnes says more work is needed to build on the significant improvements that have been made in London’s ability to respond to a major incident, such as a terrorist attack.

“Londoners can be reassured that despite the heroic efforts made by the emergency services on 7 July 2005 no one is being complacent about their ability to respond to such a horrific incident. We particularly welcome the fact that issues raised with the committee by survivors of the bombings are being addressed for the future.

“Our report highlights continuing problems with Airwave that need to be tackled to ensure emergency service personnel have access to the robust and effective communications systems they need. Anything less would sell them and the Londoners they serve short.”

The Committee will review further progress in implementing its recommendations in November 2007, when it will focus on the rollout of digital radios across the emergency services in London.


The 7 July Review Committee report  (from 10am onwards)