Radio network fosters Oxford’s security community

As a department we have been users on the radio network for over 18 months. It has greatly improved our on-site communications for security, safety and maintenance matters. We have also been able to link our fire alarm systems to the radios, which has in turn greatly improved our response times. All in all it has been a fantastic investment.” Phil King, Reception and General Administration Manager, Department of Engineering Science

The challenge

In 2013, the future of the University’s radio communications network was uncertain. During the protests over the construction of new animal research facilities, the University had outsourced a highly secure network, but by this point the same level of specification was no longer required.

Robin Wilkinson at Security Services and George Neman from Facilities Management were tasked with exploring the best possible security radio network solution for future use across the University and to investigate the systems already used in colleges and departments to ensure interoperability.

Their research revealed a patchwork of small, incompatible systems that left many parts of the University unable to communicate effectively with each other, preventing fast communication in an emergency. None of these systems were suitable for a University-wide network as most used older analogue technology and had limited potential to operate across the whole city.
A new network was needed. It had to meet the needs of both Security services and Facilities Management (FM) staff in the first instance, but it also needed to offer the flexibility to grow to meet the requirements of other potential users.

It needed have secure encryption and be cost effective. Radio handsets had to be robust, able to stand up to being carried on the belts of building managers and maintenance operatives on their daily routines as well as the rigours of constant use by a 24/7 security operation.

The solution

A system derived from military radios, offering numerous useful features, was sourced that had standard features such as

  • Flexible voice communication within groups and if necessary across the whole network
  • Text messaging
  • Lone worker monitoring – staff working on their own must press a button every half hour to confirm they are safe; otherwise, an alarm sounds and security personnel are assigned to check on them. The system meets UK government standards for lone worker protection.
  • Alarm monitoring – staff like fire wardens can be alerted by text message when an alarm goes off in a building they are responsible for, even if they are elsewhere. This is particularly useful for FM building managers, who are often responsible for several locations, or porters who must monitor buildings all over their colleges. This enables faster responses to alarms and reduces the need to staff all buildings at all times.

The radios offer additional features that are not yet widely used but have potential future benefits – for example, job ticketing functionality that could be integrated with existing helpdesk software to ensure customer issues are dealt with efficiently.

The outcome

The radio network has grown since its introduction, revealing a previously unmet demand for integrated University-wide communications.

The system went live in 2013 with around 60 handsets and two repeaters broadcasting signals across the network, in the tower of the Engineering department’s Thom Building and at Old Road Campus. There are now around 740 handsets active on the network, with 15 repeaters providing a strong signal throughout most the city. 32 colleges and 52 departments are now part of the scheme, as well as many smaller institutes, clubs and other organisations. There are more than 150 user groups on the network.

Beyond its immediate applications, the system has helped start conversations between Security Services and other parts of the University. By providing a useful service that lets colleges and departments share information without any appearance of threatening their independence, the network has opened up a dialogue with Security Services, creating beneficial wider relationships.

The radio network has helped create a new security culture of information-sharing across the University. College and department staff do not only use the radios to talk to Security Services about possible security threats; they also talk to each other, for example providing early warnings of troublemakers moving around town. This makes everyone more secure, creating what Robin describes as ‘an Oxford-wide security umbrella effect’; it could never have happened when individual colleges and departments operated their own incompatible networks.