Communications Security Versus Effective Coordination of First Responders in the ‘Golden Hour’

Inter organisation emergency response coordination in the event of a major incident is a complex issue. There are numerous organic challenges to overcome and these significant challenges can be further exacerbated by the ability of those ‘first responders’ to communicate effectively across a highly charged, complex and often confusing incident area. There are solutions available, such as the Incident Commanders Radio Interface (ICRI) available through Domain Communications which can help to overcome the technical challenge of inter organisation communications, it is simple to use, quickly deployable and readily available.

Whilst ongoing and recently rejuvenated coordination efforts of liaison, joint exercises and improved understanding of organisational practices and priorities are undoubtedly paying dividends, including overcoming those challenges presented through entrenched cultural, procedural and methodical differences, there is also a financial cost to delivering that coordination in a real situation.

Common procurement is a noble aspiration, but the special requirements of emergency agencies mean that in truth, they are often using very different communication equipment where interoperability/compatibility is not straightforward. Often communications units operate in different frequency bands and are not physically able to communicate with one another. Over and above this there is often encryption to ensure the protection of sensitive and classified information, and these encryption systems too are often different.

Recently the British armed services were employed to help deliver elements of security for the 2012 London Olympic Games; it will come as no surprise that those existing challenges of culture, procedure and methods of communications are very well entrenched in the military and have the potential therefore to increase by a level of magnitude the complexity of interoperability in the event of a major incident at the 2012 games or other key events. It is further complicated by the fact the military may use their existing communications equipment which is often encrypted and also varies from service to service. There are also some procedural differences within the armed services, although there are undoubtedly large areas of commonality.

The bottom line is that specifically and necessarily there are those users within and without the first responder community who routinely use encrypted communications as part of the UK national security arrangements. In the event of a major incident, these agencies and organisations, supported by the military, need the ability to communicate and coordinate to ensure the most effective, safe and timely responses and ultimately save lives; this ability is hampered by the employment of numerous encrypted communications systems, but is this level of encryption really necessary in the aftermath of a major incident? It is probably that the immediate priorities for preservation of life, national infrastructure, integrity and resilience will also score very highly in any commanders risk assessment.

Solutions such as ICRI exist which can deliver the required intercommunication very easily and at a relatively low cost. So the final obstacle would appear to be the approval or authorisation of those encrypted services to move quickly into the use of an unencrypted audio bridge in the event of a major incident. That this is not something to be undertaken lightly, after all these encryption systems are employed for good reason and at significant additional expense; it is definitely this critical point which really needs a level of investigation and consideration.

The protection or encryption of voice communications is usually employed to protect sensitive information which could be exploited by unfriendly forces to aid criminal, subversive or terrorist activity, or it could be to protect formally classified data or information protected by legislation. In any case, there will have been assessments made of the reasons for protecting the information and the level of protection required. The question is whether on balance, the short-term requirement to coordinate in a national emergency outweighs those original requirements sufficiently to communicate in clear during an ongoing incident. It is vitally important to note that this short period of ‘in-clear’ communications does not increase the threat to the ‘breaking’ of any encryption system, and the only threat to actual information would be during the period that the system was connected to the communications bridge. In any event, encryption can still be maintained when needed by simple switching at the hub which will likely be located within a secure Gold or Silver command where the final decision on the trade between communication security versus coordination of first responders will be made.

It is important to recognise that we are presented with a multi-level security challenge; a challenge that will, and does, exist and needs a pragmatic, realistic, affordable and scalable solution. There are multi-level security systems available, but these are often complex, carry a high training burden aimed at the specialist and are very expensive.

ICRI can link encrypted networks, as well as ‘link-in’ unencrypted networks (such as a mobile phone). The decision to integrate is based on a risk assessment that is local to the incident commander (Gold/Silver). Above all, without synchronised command and control of all first responder assets, confusion, added risk and even displaced defences allowing an unchallenged potential secondary or tertiary incident could occur.

London 2012 was a great success thanks to the overt and covert work of the security services and other national assets, nevertheless those decision makers and influencers in the emergency service power houses may wish to consider this option to help first responders deliver coordination of vitally important and complimentary emergency services to future major events throughout the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.