RNLI introduces time saving radio system

Since 1824, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) has provided a lifeboat service – currently from 233 lifeboat stations around the coast of the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

For 20 years, the charity had been calling out its volunteer crews and launch teams using various types of commercial and private paging systems, none of which fulfilled the RNLI’s needs adequately.

The RNLI had no priority over other paging calls, which could result in delays in getting a crew assembled. There was also a degree of uncertainty because there was no direct feedback to indicate that a successful paging call had been made. “We need to alert our crews of a call out in the shortest possible time” says Brian Faulkner, the RNLI’s Radio Communications Manager, responsible for communications, based at their headquarters in Poole. “With the old systems we had no idea if the crew had received a page until they began arriving at the boathouse.” Moving for the first time to its own wholly owned system, the RNLI took the opportunity to set out its specific needs.

Special requirements
Brian Faulkner explains. “We may only need six crew on board an All Weather Lifeboat, but it takes a lot more to launch and recover the boat. We have over 8000 pagers around the coast. No off the shelf paging system was likely to suit us, as almost every lifeboat station presents a different technical problem depending on the type of station and its geographical position.”

A partnership approach
Having decided what was needed and gone out to tender with a number of established telecoms providers, the RNLI chose Arqiva. “We were impressed with Arqiva’s professional approach,” says Brian Faulkner. “The company has an excellent record in radio system design, but the team also made the effort to find out how the RNLI functions at grass roots level.”

The contract was awarded in two phases. The first was a pilot system involving the installation of five selected stations, all having different technical configurations. Brian Faulkner explains, “We wanted to get feedback from Launching Authorities and crews to find their likes and dislikes. After all they are the ones who use the system. One request was the ability to switch on the outside lights at the station, through the paging system – enhancing safety when the crew arrives. This is particularly useful at stations with difficult access and where crews have to negotiate floating pontoons to get to the boat.”

The second phase of the contract was awarded to provide the full system roll-out to all 233 lifeboat stations. This meant consolidation of the system design from the pilot phase, propagation planning, site surveys, installation and operational training.

The right equipment for the task
Call-out is now almost immediate because the system is under RNLI control – saving valuable time. “The system is a lot more flexible,” says Brian Faulkner. “Where before, we had to rely on other paging systems, now we have direct access to our own system either by telephone, through our private mobile radios (PMR), or via a PC, in a matter of seconds.”

In the future, an important innovation will be a data link to allow the Coastguard to send information about the casualty direct to a printer in the boathouse. This information will also appear on an electronic scrolling board for the crew to read while putting on their protective gear. This advance information means they will be better prepared for the task ahead and take the right equipment. Another valuable facility available to the RNLI for the first time is a secure (scrambled) PMR radio system. Integrated with the pager system, it provides a voice link between the RNLI Launch Authorities and boats officers, lifeboats and Coastguard.

Value added facilities
Valuable additional facilities have been provided as part of the system. For example, advice of lifeboat launches is made to the RNLI’s website, enabling those people interested to see launches displayed on a UK/Ireland map. The new system can also provide automatic Short Message Service (SMS) advice to Launching Authorities mobile phones, allowing them to keep track of what’s happening at their station when they are out of the area.

A huge boost in confidence
A major advantage of the new paging system is the automatic integrity check that confirms the transmission of crew alerts - providing an important assurance and avoiding the possible need to phone around for people to help with a beach launch, for example. “The knowledge that the paging has been successful is a great confidence booster,” says Brian Faulkner. “But equally important is the knowledge that the system is fully monitored. Arqiva’s Customer Service Centre at Emley Moor monitors it around the clock, runs an operational check every day, is committed to respond to problems within two hours and effect a fix to major faults within 24 hours. In the past, we would often only know there was a fault at the time of a call-out; the worst possible time to learn of a problem - and it could sometimes take days to repair.”

Each lifeboat station is equipped with a basic package but the system is designed so that in the future, as technology changes, improvements and enhancements can be made to ensure that the RNLI continues to have the best possible call out system for its crews.

For further information, visit www.arqiva.com/publicsafety