WEST Midlands Ambulance Service is the first ambulance trust in the country to operate a new digital radio system.

The trust has moved its emergency operations across to the new Ambulance Radio Project (ARP), replacing an analogue system that was more than 40 years old.

One of the key findings of the London Assembly’s review of the tragic events of July 7, 2005 was that communications failures undermined the “heroic efforts” of emergency crews, doctors and commuters to rescue victims injured in the London bombings. It is believed ARP will help meet that requirement.

The trust started to go live on ARP in March (2009) and has now been fully operational since the middle of November.

The switchover is allowing the service to reap the benefits of a far more efficient, resilient and secure means of communication.

ARP is being rolled out across all ambulance services in the UK by the Department of Health and is provided by Airwave.

It offers a secure, encrypted system which gives high levels of signal coverage compared to traditional analogue radios and allows ambulance staff to communicate effectively with each other. All ambulance services will have moved over by the middle of 2010.

Barry Thurston, the trust’s director of service delivery, was until recently also the National Implementation Director at the Department of Health for ARP.

He said: “Our staff have welcomed and adjusted exceptionally well to the new system which provides major improvements for them and the trust.

“It is based upon two ICCS (Integrated Communications and Control Systems) radio hubs. They are separated geographically but networked together to offer a high level of redundancy and resilience. “Each of the trusts three Emergency Operations Centres (EOCs) now has the ability to control and dispatch vehicles to 999 calls anywhere in the region.

“For the West Midlands, ARP has allowed the trust to make a fundamental change in the way the control room works – for many years the Birmingham and Black Country dispatch centre had been restricted to controlling all of its resources using three analogue radio channels, often resulting in over 50 vehicles being dispatched via a single channel.

“Now the trust has begun to use ARP to create multiple dispatch desks each controlling less than 20 vehicles in a ‘sector’.

“It also means that all of the resources in that sector, be they ambulances, rapid response cars, motorcycles or doctors are dispatched by the same controller. The performance improvements this brought can only be good for patients.

“A huge benefit of ARP is that each handset is fitted with a tracking device which allows EOCs to know exactly where each one is.

“The handsets also come with a panic button which, when pressed, immediately alerts the EOC. Staff in the control room can then listen in to what is happening and mobilise police to the exact location of the member of staff.

“The recording can also be used as evidence in any resulting court case. This is truly invaluable as it means that if a member of our staff is in danger or feels their personal safety is being compromised, all they have to do is push a button to get help.

“The new system has great flexibility when it comes to communicating too. ARP allows ambulance staff to talk directly with one another via their handsets.

“This means that two members of staff can converse with each other privately, similar to a telephone conversation.

“At large incidents or at events such as V Festival, dedicated talk groups are used which allows staff to hear and communicate with their colleagues far more easily.

“Another huge benefit of ARP is that ambulance staff can interoperate with commanders from other emergency services at the scenes of large or major incidents. Such a system would have undoubtedly helped efforts on 7/7 in London.

“This project has been huge. Over 800 vehicles have been fitted with the equipment and there are literally hundreds of handsets.

“Despite that, the gains that the trust has been able to make have resulted in direct improvements for patient care, staff safety, better resilience and interoperability between blue light services.

“Even better we are still learning how to get the best out of the system so those improvements will continue to grow in number for years to come.”