ESN early adopters: maximum effort, maximum reward


NFCC technical lead for ESN, Stephen Allen, talks to Philip Mason about the work being carried out with early adopters of the network, as well as his expectations for the technology going forward.

Could you outline your role, and how it fits in with the broader National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) work around ESN.

I’m the NFCC technical lead, which simply put means I work with people across the programme, and fire and rescue services, to make sure things work the way they should from a technical perspective. The work is about the assurance of ESN, as well as communicating relevant information to FRSs. Furthermore, we’re involved in implementation on the ground, making sure the system design works and is acceptable for both the fire sector and the service itself.

Regarding the technology, we deal with everything, from testing devices and network assurance all the way through to control rooms and liaising with third-party suppliers. A lot of the work we’re doing is with fire services who have chosen to go early, actively looking for ways to incorporate ESN into their operations as soon as possible. 

What would be a typical example of work that has been carried out? What have you been doing recently?

Recent projects have included the evolution of additional capability within the Connect product, working with County Durham and Darlington FRS (CDDFRS).

The service has been using Connect to access data on its fire engines. We’ve also been liaising with services in Dorset and Wiltshire, as well as Merseyside, and now West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire.

With all of these, we’ve been able to bring together services’ individual plans for ESN, while at the same time fulfilling our need to assure functionality on the ground. That includes things like security, IT health checks, device provisioning, and so on.

The team consists of myself, plus Lee D’Arcy and Jim Patrick. We’re building good relationships with fire and rescue services across England.

Could you go into a bit more detail regarding the work that is being carried out. What exactly are you aiming to assure?

A big project we’re involved with currently is connecting West Yorkshire up to the [non-mission-critical] ‘press to talk’ voice application. I recently assisted in connecting their DNSP [data network service provider], making sure that everything was joined together and they had the connectivity to ESN. We’ll also be working on the mobile data management side, as well as creating the fleetmap to provide talk groups and profiles.

With CDDFRS, a huge amount of work had been done around the essential bearer design, and how the DNSP connects to the service. Connect Critical is the latest piece of work that they’ve been involved in, and the fluidity of their teams in supporting this has been brilliant.

How is the learning being taken forward from one fire service to another?

Having this kind of experience under our belt makes everything a lot clearer regarding how we move forward with the project, certainly from a technical point of view. For instance, we’ve now put back-to-back firewalls into our DNSP design, providing a clearer demarcation point between fire service and ESN. We are close to rolling out the managed firewall solution.

There is also the ability to help orientate users regarding the policies that need to sit under the new technology and procedures. We’re currently working on the documentation you’d expect to see if you were in the process of connecting to the network, something which will increasingly reflect needs and experience on the ground. All these lessons are being applied iteratively.

Have you come across any difficulties so far? What part do you play when fixes are required, and again, how do you incorporate that into any learning that comes out?

Testing of Connect at CDDFRS highlighted the need to look at antenna positioning in relation to fire engine emergency lights, something which has the potential to interfere with signal.

We did some investigation into this, through which we were able to refine antenna positioning. We’re communicating those findings to the fire and rescue services, and across our other emergency services. 

To what degree has your team become involved in operational processes? Does the technical aspect have a bearing on that?

NFCC has started another piece of work specifically looking at concept of operations in relation to ESN. One key area of that is related to the sheer volume of information, and increased capabilities, which will be available to firefighters.

The vehicle location piece is a prime example of where we’re having to become very involved, with most of the location data and timing signals – for instance, GPS and AVLS – using satellite communication. Obviously, ESN only increases these dependencies, so we’ll need to develop particular standards around resilience and security. We’re already having conversations about this with the Cabinet Office and the UK Space Agency.

Changing the subject slightly, what are the attitudes of fire and rescue services towards ESN at this point? The University of Leeds findings published last year presented a less than optimistic picture…

The conversation has moved on quite a lot since that research was carried out, and building trust and confidence in the technical delivery has been a top priority for my team.

What we’re seeing on the ground is that fire and rescue services are evolving their digital and ESN strategy, specifically in relation to their operational requirements. It’s no longer just a matter of the technical people saying ‘what do you want to do with it?’, and the operational people saying ‘well, what can we do with it?’.

What we’re seeing now is an incremental approach, gradually charting the course from data SIM only to the eventual transition to mission-critical voice.

If FRSs do the majority of the work now in ‘slow time’, they’ll be ready to go when the time comes. At that point, it’s just an incremental – and more informed – shift.

We’re working with a lot of services at the minute, with at least one in each region keen to exploit ESN as early as they can. This is great to see because it means the ESN conversation – as well as the learning – is spreading across the NFCC network via word of mouth. We’re seeing those who want to become involved growing steadily.

Have services not been taking account of ESN within their business planning for years?

Services have focused on what you could regard as the eventual ‘formal’ transition [ie, based on the Britain-wide timescale]. However, we know that engaging now is going to be hugely beneficial for them, in terms of understanding the technical design and architecture in order to support operational delivery.

Early engagement by services helps us understand as a fire community where we are regarding a particular solution. It also helps us understand if we’ve got it right from a technical perspective in order to meet all the different possible variances.

All organisations are different and will have their own way of doing things. This is especially true in regard to technical implementation and approaches to ESN.  

Given how complicated things have been up until now, are you confident in the technology?

We’re gaining increasing confidence in the network as we progress with the work that is being carried out. We can currently actually observe it being rolled out in an operational context, so what we’re in the business of now is seeing how we can move things forward.

The focus is now about how the technology is going to be delivered, and what we can do to make it better. At the same time, we’re also looking at how to evolve the designs that are already in place. That will help us with things like shared control rooms, specific data connections and so on.

What are the next 12 months going to look like? 

The next 12 months are going to be an incredibly busy and fast-moving time for us. Technically, we’re now seeing a huge number of essential components being brought together, so it’s our job – with the support of our fire community partners – to test all those welds and joins.

We’ve also got to work within the COVID-19 world which we all now have to live in. But we’ll be getting out there, testing and working with services, in order to move forward their Emergency Services Network projects. 

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Media contact

Philip Mason
Managing Editor, Critical Communications Portfolio
Tel: +44 (0)20 3874 9216