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Sussex Ambulance Service Case Study - Analogue Technology for the 21st Century

Sussex Ambulance Service Case Study - Analogue Technology for the 21st Century

In the public service arena there is some uncertainty on what integrated communication infrastructures will look like over the next decade. Whatever the debate, it is important that police, fire and ambulance services find a credible solution to allow them to meet the increased pressures placed on them by political bodies and the growing role played by ‘consumers’. Ian Lockyer, Marketing Executive of radio manufacturer, Icom (UK) Ltd went to see John Stewart, Communication Officer for Sussex Ambulance Service Trust (SAST) to see what role analogue technology is making in this critically important area.

John Stewart, Communication Officer for SAST has a central role that involves the design, procurement, training, and maintenance of an integrated communication system. With the importance placed on response targets, patient welfare and the security of its ambulance staff, communications has never been as important and as critical to the success of the service. It is John Stewart's responsibility to make sure that the equipment operates efficiently and effectively as possible. This is no easy task as the Trust covers such a large area.

The county’s communication infrastructure is essentially split into two areas. An outer arc, covers Chichester, through mid Sussex to Hastings. There is an inner arc, which covers Littlehampton to Eastbourne (essentially the area covering the South Downs). There are 8 transmitters in the outer arc and 6 transmitters on the inner. The trust uses quasi-synchronous transmissions on these channels, which allows a high degree of coverage and allows BT to change the routing without the effect of delay. Previously, if BT changed the line, you had a poor quality signal and a wait for an engineer to turn up and tune the system back in.

Sussex Ambulance Fleet comprises over 80 Accident & Emergency (A&E) vehicles, 90 Patient Transport Service (PTS), 10 response cars (Vauxhall Vectra), 7 Toyota Land Cruiser 4x4’s and 11 motorcycles. The varied response vehicles allow a flexible approach to incidents. For example, on the Downs, the 4x4’s would be used as they have that additional capability to get to the scene of an incident.

The Trust also uses a Police helicopter that is always crewed by a Sussex Ambulance Paramedic along with a Police Officer and pilot. This new helicopter is a jointly funded by the Police and Ambulance Services.

The role played by radio has grown in importance giving many general applications for Ambulance staff. Radios allow crews to talk to each other and to control, allowing them to give reports very quickly. Handheld two way radio especially, allow crews to communicate away from vehicles which is very important in some incidents like road traffic accidents enabling the ambulance staff to give a concise report without returning to the vehicle. Two way radio gives the immediate facility to call for backup thus giving each member of staff peace of mind and providing a more effective service for patients. This is one reason why SAST have introduced more handheld radios. The SAST has also had to expand its number of radios because of the increase in demands on their expanding vehicle fleet. The SAST was one of the first organisations to purchase the IC-F3GT, Icom’s flagship handheld VHF two way radio transceiver in the UK. These were initially given to all line managers/operation officers.

50 Icom handheld radio transceivers have already been put into the SAST radio scheme, allowing personnel to be away from the vehicle but still be able to get into the scheme. John Stewart further added, ‘We have put two new repeater base stations into our area which now gives us an impressive 90% handheld coverage across the county.’

Remarking on Icom’s data ready mobile radio, IC-F1610, John Stewart said, ’The IC-F1610’s have worked very well. We first purchased the IC-F1610 because we were looking for a replacement radio for our vehicles. We initially had them in our officer's cars and felt that this was a good proving ground. If they were happy with the radios then it would be straightforward to put them in the Ambulances. This radio is now being fitted into 18 A&E vehicles and 8 service vehicles.’ SAST is currently in the process of planning for a new emergency control vehicle for use at major incidents. It will have a dedicated radio/comms area and a dedicated command area. John Stewart said, ’we are looking to fit a wide range of radios including IC-F1610 data radios, MRP-2000 mobile repeater as well as Icom Airband and Marine radios.’ He further added, ’It will be a multi- function vehicle and a wide range of equipment will be needed to deal with possible incidents that may arise. For instance, Gatwick Airport as well as Goodwood and Shoreham Airports come under our operational area. There is 130 miles of coast that we will have to cover and there are always a lot of large events (including high profile Party Political Conferences) going on in the county. Our communication needs are incredibly varied.’

So what about performance? John Stewart said, ’I am very happy with the performance of the Icom two way radio equipment. Having being involved in my spare time with Amateur Radio, I know about Icom's history and its reputation for quality. The equipment has operated extremely well in the field and we have found the equipment very reliable and easy to use.

So what are the other advantages that Icom has to offer? John Stewart said,’ The advantage of the IC-F3GT’s and IC-F1610’s is that they are programmable per channel to give independent channel configurations. If Sussex staff go over to Kent they are able to use the same special channels that Kent Ambulance uses. Another advantage with Icom is that delivery and after sales support is very good.’

So what about the future? John Stewart said, 'We will be moving in the direction of fitting our motorcycles with both Icom mobiles (IC-F1610) and handhelds (IC-F3GS). We have ten response cars and eleven motorcycles and we eventually want to fit them all with Icom radios. These can be programmed in such a way that we have got an alarm button with a general selcal code, priority selcal code and an emergency selcal code programmed onto the IC-F3GS/GT series.'

So what is the future for analogue technology? John Stewart said, ‘My personal view is that most services will eventually go over to Tetra. Sussex Police is believed to be going over to Tetra in 2003. This will require a great deal of investment. I want to see it working properly first so it is likely that we will be looking at implementing or introducing Tetra in or around 2004-5. For the immediate future we will be getting more analogue sets from Icom.

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