Communications Breakdown Riots

8 August 2011 London riots - police in Lewisham
Riots in London - August 2011

Having had an interest in radio for most of my life, both as a hobby and as a tool of necessity for work, I found it interesting to read a piece in The Guardian recently (see here). The article reported on alleged failures in the emergency services radio system. Apparently the ‘leaked’ news from a Police Federation report, has subsequently and rightly led to some verbal riots over the raised issues…

Claims Of Police Communication Breakdown During Riots Rejected: Allegations that the police were forced to use personal mobile phones during the summer riots after their multi-billion pound radio system failed have been branded as “completely inaccurate” (see

Along with all the undoubted negative impacts upon the effective management of police resources, if any or all of the allegations turn out to be true, the most worrying factor obviously relates to the safety of police officers on the ground. This in turn presents implications for the employer, who under legal obligation has a ‘duty of care’ to those officers being placed at risk..

“We want to make it absolutely clear that this information is entirely inaccurate” (Airwave)

Irrespective of the claims and counterclaims, when officers are unable to talk to their colleagues in a volatile situation it’s dangerous. When the command structure don’t know how many officers were on duty or indeed where they were deployed, during a period of unprecedented violence and in situations of extreme danger, the questions being asked rightly require urgent answers.

But first some background and historical information on the topic…

I make my comments and observations as someone who holds formal qualifications in radio communication, and previously, I was also a qualified military signals instructor. I worked on the frontline of policing during the Toxteth Riots and the UK Miners Dispute and I have been involved in numerous emergency communications situations since, including the bombing of PanAm Flight 103 (Lockerbie).

During the latter part of my police career I was a police radio controller, I was also involved with the evaluation and pilot testing of Airwave during 2001 in Lancashire. I was a member of the project team responsible for Airwave delivery in North Yorkshire and, as the deputy lead for Health and Safety with North Yorkshire Police Federation, I contributed to several seminars where Airwave was often a hot topic of discussion. Some may consider my opinion as ‘expert’ however I would prefer to say; having a good understanding and working knowledge of all the issues is perhaps an understatement.

The Airwave System…

The Airwave network is a mobile communications network dedicated for the use by the emergency services in the United Kingdom. The Airwave network is based on the specialist Terrestrial Trunked Radio specification (see TeTra Pocket Guide). The secure digital and encrypted network is designed to be resilient and carry both voice and data transmission. It also allows multiple agencies to use integrated communications through a nationwide network. The two most popular suppliers of police radio terminals for use on the Airwave network are Motorola and Sepura (as used by North Yorkshire Police).

Despite suggestions that some of the problems are new issues, the system itself is anything but new in reality. The ‘new’ system was plagued by delays however; I can recal reading about the proposals, the system specifications and it’s capabilities in technical journals way back in the 1980’s. To say I was excited about the possibilities for this communications tool would be another understatement, it’s potential for enhancing police operational capabilities were immense.

The proposed system actually became a working reality in the early 1990’s and, after much commercial wrangling over contracts, specifications and a good deal of testing, it was eventually rolled out across the UK as a national network for the emergency services. The last force to adopt Airwave was the Metropolitan Police around 2007, which does make it relatively new to them however; I obviously can’t comment from a first-hand perspective on their experiences.

Underlying difficulties leading to (perceived) system failures…

I’m likely to use the word ‘perceived’ fairly regular in this post because; many failures which are actually experienced rarely relate to system failure per se. They are often (and generally) born out of the way in which the system and it’s associated terminal equipment is configured and/or used.

Despite the Metropolitan Police using Airwave across all boroughs since September 2007, their transition to the ‘new’ radio system has not been without problems. This was highlighted in a report (see here) from the Metropolitan Police Federation, written during the latter stages of their system roll out. There were apparently some “significant failings” during the Notting Hill Carnival and on New Years Eve in the first year of use.

One of the initial, and possibly most significant negative impacts upon subsequent (percieved) failures has always been; the general failures of the public sector to operate effectively in the commercial world. There are several examples of lack lustre performance and inefficiencies when it comes to major projects, not least the implementation of Airwave.

Whoever negotiated the contract appears to have seriously misunderstood the needs of the emergency services. As a result, we in the Met are now left with situations where officer safety is being compromised because the systems do not do what it says on the tin…(Steve Rands – Metropolitan Police Federation)

Although the Metropolitan Police (due mostly to size) are probably better performing than some in this area, negative impacts born out of contractual issues are indicative of the inherent failings across the service as a whole.  In general, Public Sector management doesn’t have a good track record for dealing with ‘business’ issues. The same type of issues faced, on an almost daily basis, by their Private Sector cousins in the commercial world.

Right from the outset, another major impact upon realisation of system capabilities was always destined to be one of hard cash; in my opinion, insufficient cognisance was afforded to the subsequent running costs after initial purchase. This was partly understandable as in real terms, the police had no previous experience of actually being charged for using their radios.

Police officers in Dorset are being encouraged to send text messages instead of talking on their radios in a bid to save money…(

Another aspect is the apparent lack of comprehensive and ongoing officer training in some forces, along with providing a more realistic understanding of system capabilities and constraints was another important issue. The advancement of the technology has generally progressed at a vastly different pace to the abilities and requirements of the user, unfortunately. Again this is mostly due to financial considerations and budgetary constraints relating to training etc.

…training is all too often treated as an abstraction rather than an investment, and there is still a need to physically teach officers, rather than rely too heavily on e-learning…(Clive Chamberlain – Dorset Police Federation)


All things considered, the police service would have been heavily criticised if they had implemented Airwave with a money’s no object mentality. However, I believe there was a generally poor level of understanding, within police and project management, about the way in which police officers would use the system in their daily work environments. In addition, it may well be unrealistic to expect they could have foreseen such large-scale events like the UK riots in August of this year. However, whether or not they should have factored that possibility into their resulting financial equation is another matter entirely.

Despite all the faults, actual or perceived, I for one am still convinced that; the Airwave radio network is in fact fit for purpose. Many ‘faults’ can be mitigated and resolved with comprehensive training, and the correct levels of financial investment in the network infrastructure. There is also still some work to be done to level out capability and expectation. In my opinion financial corners have been cut, for a variety of differing reasons. The question I would put to police management (and the government) is; can you really afford to cut those corners and, what price do you actually attach to a police officer’s life?

Looking forward…

With the approach of London 2012 along with all the associated logistical issues and the fact, London may well turn out to be an even bigger terrorist target than it normally is, any failure in communications infrastructures must be addressed. In addition, given that an “overwhelming majority” of those interviewed about their involvement in the summer riots believe they will be repeated (see here), there is a very pressing need to address the failings (real or perceived) quickly and put things right for the future.

Irrespective of the allegations and counter claims; any shortcomings in a system, so fundamentally intrinsic to the overall efficiency and safety of the emergency services (and the public), must be ironed out once and for all… Sooner rather than later!

4 thoughts on “Communications Breakdown Riots

  1. 11.12.2011 The Guardian (For the record):-

    We should clarify that while a Police Federation report into the policing of last August’s riots speaks of “significant local technical difficulties” and a “significant communications failure”, the Airwave police communication network did not “collapse”, as we said in “Revealed: how police lost control of summer riots”. The National Policing Improvement Agency says the network was able to cope with 16,000 officers deployed in the London area. “Some officers had to wait a few seconds for their calls to get through, but, fundamentally, the network proved to be most resilient,” it said in a statement.


  2. You sound surprised Dave. Financial mismanagment, project procurement being led by desk jockeys with no real world understanding of the practical needs of the end user, project delivery over-run (and inherent cost rising). End users being put at risk. Welcome to the world of public sector politics. Why use the experts (that is those that are on the ground and living the reality) when you can get some inexperienced, wet behind the ears, jobsworth with lots of certificates and family conections, but no common sense. Put them in charge of multi-million pound projects, watch their ego inflate and their ability to listen to reason shrink and you get what you describe above. You only have to look at the (hugely under reported) situation in Basra Province, Iraq. with regards to the muliple failures of Comms. equipment over at least 2 roulments of Op. Telic. where in the middle of firefights the troops resorted to having to phone Whitehall on SAT Phones and hope that the (civilian) operator would connect them back to their bases in Iraq. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the operator always asked the caller if the call was “Official” despite the noise of battle in the background. What really surprises me however is your statement “it would be unrealistic to expect … the UK riots”. FFS. I pay my taxes so that those myriad of STRATEGIC planners look at every eventuality. If there are plans in place to take military action against Iran, plans in place in case we get invaded by little green men from other galaxies, and a situation brewing in the UK where a Blonde alcoholic, aged 21 from Essex could have predicted civil unrest (but probably could not have spelt it) then why in Gods name was there no contingency for the riots?


    1. Hi Steve
      For all intents and purpose the personal radio (PR) is still a PR although now even more so. They are usually issued on a personal basis to each officer and can identify that officer to the network, along with accurate positioning information via GPS when/if configured, with no input from the user after being switched on. The safety implications for officers are immense however; many see these facilities with the same ethos that HGV drivers did when techographs became a legal requirement i.e. “I’m being spied upon”. The other main advantage is the fact signals are encrypted and the ‘crooks’ can’t listen in like they used to. Although slightly technical in content, a reasonable list of advantages/disadvantages can be found HERE where you can also find links to further info should you so wish.


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