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BSIA Briefing

by Brian Sims

Professional practitioners operating within both the security and fire sectors are working collaboratively to take up the challenge presented by the new Electronic Call Handling Operations (ECHO) project, which aims to bring those industries closer together with the Emergency Services. Here, David Wilkinson discusses progress made to date.

Unwanted alarm signals have been exercising the police and Fire and Rescue Services’ call handling abilities for many years now. In their determined bids to tackle this ongoing issue, both factions have been adopting radically different approaches and, in the process, have employed different forms of technology to fit their requirements.

The police service has adopted a national approach by providing a Unique Recognition Number (URN) for systems installed to accredited third party validated standards. The Fire and Rescue Service, though, has chosen a whole range of approaches, from non-attendance to any call from an Alarm Receiving Centre (ARC) through to full attendance in response to all such calls.

In recent years, there have therefore been talks about combining these methods into one nationally recognised solution. The British Security Industry Association has been working closely and diligently alongside the Fire Industry Association and the Fire & Security Association to develop the all-new Electronic Call Handling Operations (ECHO) project, and duly secured funding under a Joint Security and Resilience Centre scheme from the Home Office to kick-start the initiative.

Though ECHO will initially focus on automating the call handling process from ARCs to the Emergency Services, it will bring about the ability to automate police URN management as well as exploit the potential for delivering both automated audio and visual alarm confirmation. Despite the fact that a similar service to this has been successfully piloted for some time with the involvement of a limited number of alarm companies and police forces, the ECHO project has aspirations of enabling the technology to be rolled out to other police and fire Control Rooms.

The problem with the current system’s capability is that it’s all about manual operation, which leads to the possibility of human error and delays in responding to Emergency Services-centric incidents. In developing the partnership approach between first responders and the industry at large, then, both efficiencies and service delivery can be improved. Overall, there’s the potential for all partners to benefit from advancements in technology when it comes to automating and improving alarm response.

End-to-end solution

The ECHO project team’s proposal is to move from manual response handling to a centralised, fully-automated, end-to-end electronic alarm handling regime aimed at reducing call handling times and the incidence of errors, while also alleviating pressure on the Emergency Services and the aforementioned ARCs. This migration to an electronic medium also has the potential to add much value by dint of providing a realistic opportunity to apply and manage URNs online.

Though initially focused on alarm message handling, there’s plenty of scope to consider other means of alarm confirmation through video and audio, as well as the passing of risk-critical information to the Emergency Services. Also on ECHO’s radar is consideration around the potential future inclusion of other users such as the Ambulance Service and Her Majesty’s national Coastguard.

Over the next 18 months, the ECHO team will develop the project while raising awareness of how the service is going to operate, primarily by attending conferences and working closely with service providers. For the remainder of 2018 and 2019, the initial intent is to scope out the project detail, formalise the ECHO technical solution and then begin the roll-out to connect participating ARCs with designated Emergency Services Control Rooms. Importantly, an in order to validate the services as a viable product, there has been a new not-for-profit company launched under the management of the Trade Associations involved which aims to provide direction and governance for ECHO.

The eventual ECHO service is expected to be subscription-based, most likely calculated annually on the number of URNs managed by ARCs and managed online. This will ensure that ECHO can be sustained year-on-year and consistently delivered by industry partners.

Following discussions between the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and the private security industry, the decision to implement electronic transfer has been agreed, meaning that the NPCC’s Security Systems Policy now cites a date of 2020 for all ARCs to be operating on an electronic platform. The hope is that, by 2020, a full technical requirement specification for the ECHO system – including a viable financial operating model for the company and a project plan for the delivery of that operating company – will be operational.

How will ECHO work?

How will ECHO work in practice, then? The first phase of ECHO will automate the current phone call from the ARC to the Emergency Services as a digital electronic machine-to-machine event. Once there’s confirmation that a given alarm has been received and understood, a signal will then be sent from the responding service – also as a machine-to-machine event – back to the ARC. This will also provide for the responding key holder information being tagged to the alarm event.

The responding service will send an event close/stop message with an outcome to the ARC, again via machine-to-machine.

The second phase will look to automate the URN management, including application, approval and the payment system possibly via a cloud-based application process. This will improve the efficiency and accuracy of data to ensure it’s consistent between installers, ARCs and the Emergency Services.

Later phases proposed for ECHO include system enhancements designed to send additional traffic information about an event, ie ‘roller shutter door open at rear of property’ or ‘fire alarm, Zone 3, third floor of building’ and a further enhancement to Phase 3 enabling more live situation data to be presented from (typically) video or audio equipment located on the premises.

As is the case with all major projects of this nature there’s an element of risk involved. Indeed, those in the ECHO project group have identified some possible hurdles which most certainly need to be alleviated if the deadline of 2020 is to be reached.

Hurdles to be negotiated

A key concern centres on convincing ARCs to agree to a proposed levy. Any lack of take-up here from the ARCs would impact the ongoing funding, so it’s important that ARCs are informed of the process and that the benefits of migrating to ECHO are imparted and the need to meet the NPCC policy by 2020 stated in no uncertain terms.

In addition, if the ECHO project was unable to make use of the PNN for any reason, this would reduce the ability to provide a centralised platform to all the police forces. This being so, it’s paramount that the technical specification of ECHO complies with the requirements of the police services’ network.

In much the same vein as with all major infrastructural changes, the ECHO team is aware of how critical it is to ensure that the level of performance delivered meets expectations. The ECHO team is making good use of ongoing sensitivity analysis via an independent challenge group as well as factoring-in extensive testing before the scheduled launch date.

When talk turns to funding, as the programme will be rolled out progressively there may be a differential between the funding stream and the company’s initial costs. To counteract this scenario, members of the ECHO team are looking to put in place contingencies for possible additional funding steams as the project progresses.

If the Fire and Rescue Services fail to adopt the URN model or don’t agree to respond to third party certified systems only, the effectiveness of the overall scheme could be diluted. Although this would only comprise around one-fifth of total connections, the ECHO project would need to make sure that the Home Office and the NPCC would work closely with the Fire and Rescue Services to consider the scheme more favourably.

Taking the longer view, the scope of ECHO is immense, with critical infrastructure across all sectors of society, from hospitals through to heritage locations, all potentially benefiting from enhanced alarm transmission.

David Wilkinson is Director of Technical Services at the British Security Industry Association

*The ECHO project is registered as a not-for-profit company and is a joint enterprise between the British Security Industry Association, the Fire Industry Association and the Fire & Security Association. To find out more information visit www.echo.uk.net

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