The East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust has completed a pilot of the Airwave digital radio scheme and says it is ready for national roll out across England. 

The trust was the first ambulance service to use the system, which is scheduled to go live across the rest of the country within the next 18 months.

The digital radios provide paramedics and control room operators with improved communications with other emergency services, and will also ensure there will be better coverage for hand-portable radios and in rural areas.

Paramedic Steve Heard, a Harlow operations manager for the trust said: “When dealing with an incident, big or small, the availability of information can have an incredible impact on our effectiveness.

“Using Airwave enables us to process and share information more quickly and accurately. We have had only positive feedback from our crews, who have already noticed the improvement Airwave is having on our operations, where saving time can mean saving lives.”

The trust worked with Airwave and the Department of Health to carry out installation of the new technology in 220 vehicles, including emergency ambulances, rapid response vehicles and patient transport service vehicles.

A trust spokesperson told EHI: “The new service is delivering improvements in the quality of voice calls between the communications centre and ambulance crews, as well as carrying data messages from communications staff to all ambulances.

“Using the same communications system as the other emergency services will provide benefits for the ambulance service in major incidents, as well as making it much easier for crews to pass information to other agencies to ensure safe and effective incident management.”

The DH initially announced the new deal with Airwave in 2005 and it has taken two years for the pilot to be completed and evaluated.

Ambulance trusts were due to start taking delivery of the new radio systems from mid-2006 with full rollout to be completed by the end of 2008. Both dates were later held back to a year later.

Concerns were recently raised by the London Assembly that the delays in implementation would leave trusts ill prepared for a terrorist attack and unable to communicate with other services in out-of-range locations.

Quentin Armitage, national implementation director for the Ambulance Radio Programme, Department of Health, said: “We are delighted with the positive feedback we have received from users of the new Airwave service in Essex. The lessons we have all learned from the roll-out in this pilot area will help ensure successful delivery of the programme nationally. Ultimately better communications for the ambulance service will enable them to continue improving patient care.”

The Airwave communication system uses a type of radio network called TETRA and is designed specifically with the emergency services in mind. The network is secure, ensuring that all communications are confidential and highly resilient.

Airwave is part of HMG Critical National Infrastructure and is designed to keep working even during major incidents when conventional mobile and fixed telephony networks may overload and fail.

David Sangster, Airwave’s general manager – health, added: “You only have to look to recent events to realise that we are asking more and more from Britain’s emergency services, and it’s essential that they are equipped with the best tools available in order to do their job properly. We are absolutely focused on providing resilient digital communications to these critical agencies so that they can get on with what they do best – serving their communities.” 

Paul Leaman, the trust’s chief operating officer for Essex, added: “We’ve been really pleased to be the pilot ambulance site for this new technology. It’s taken a lot of hard work from our project management team, and our control staff and crews have done a great job adapting to the new system.

“These efforts are already paying off in terms of benefits for both staff and patients, and it’s good to know that the lessons we’ve learned whilst rolling out the project will help spread these benefits to ambulance trusts across England.”