Police forces can buy “special coverage enhancements” to make up for the fact that the national contract for the Airwave digital radio system does not include coverage inside buildings, the National Police Improvement Agency (NPIA) has said.
The agency, which replaced the Police IT Organisation (PITO), was responding to criticism of the contracts from a committee set up to review the response to the July 2005 London bombings.
The London Assembly’s 7 July review committee probed the Airwave communications system in a follow-up to its initial review of the response the bombings.
It slammed the contracts for Airwave – which is now being rolled out across London’s emergency services – because they did not include coverage inside buildings or underground.
The assembly members found that the national Airwave contract, tendered and managed by PITO, provides only for open air coverage. Their report says: “Any coverage within vehicles or buildings is referred to as ‘incidental’ in the contract.”
This had forced the Metropolitan Police to buy extra coverage for “significant sites”, including Heathrow Airport, Wembley stadium – and even a police station in south London – where the Airwave radios did not work. “In the case of Heathrow, the special scheme cost £2.4m,” the committee found.
The Airwave contract, worth nearly £3bn, was awarded to BT in 2000 by the now-defunct PITO. After BT sold off its 02 mobile arm, the contract was held by 02 Airwave, itself bought by Australian bank Macquarie in April.
Other problems identified in the Met’s roll-out of Airwave included software issues, such as radios unexpectedly resetting themselves, failure of the emergency activation function, limited battery life and problems with talking across zones and “talkgroups”.
But in response, NPIA said the service provided “a core level of radio coverage and allows individual forces to dictate any additional coverage they need locally”.
In-building coverage was not guaranteed under the Airwave contract “but neither was it guaranteed under the Metropolitan Police's earlier system, Met Radio”, NPIA said.
“Airwave gives excellent hand-held and vehicle coverage and the NPIA is working closely with Airwave and the MPS to ensure that the force requirements are met. A new low cost Special Coverage repeater product has been developed by Airwave for use specifically in police buildings.”
Users were “receiving much improved coverage levels, including areas where historically radio coverage was unavailable,” NPIA claimed, adding “Airwave offers clearer and more secure voice and data communication that cannot be scanned.”