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Interference clouds future of multi-billion police radio project

Could jam hospital kit or nobble breathalysers

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The future of a £2.5 billion project to provide British police with a radio network has been thrown into doubt amidst fears that the technology could interfere with hospital equipment and even breath test devices or speed detection kit.

Early trials of the equipment have led police forces to advise officer to switch radios off when in hospital environments, instead of simply refraining from transmitting as is the case with current kit.

The concern expressed by police is the latest twist in the controversy surrounding the provision of a next generation network for the emergency services, called Airwave, or the Public Safety Radio Communications Project, a contract for which was signed last year. The technology behind the system Tetra, (or Terrestrial Trunk Radio), uses handset that transmits signals to base stations at regular intervals and concern centres around the fear that these pulses could affect other equipment.

All British forces should have the technology available by 2004, but as police in Lancashire become the first force to go live with the system, another early pioneer has broken ranks to air its concerns.

Police from the channel island of Jersey, which is going through pre-implementation testing of the technology, is advising its officers to be much more careful about using the equipment than was the case with previous kit. Because of fears of interfering with hospital equipment, the States of Jersey police have imposed tough rules on using equipment and ordered the lowest powered handset available.

The testing also threw up concerns that, according to a statement issued by the Jersey Police, "if a speed detection device external radio interference, it was rendered inoperative". There are also concerns about breath testing devices.

According to reports police are being advised that they can only do breath tests 10m from handsets or 35m from more powerful car transmitters. This has raised concerns that the system, the price of which has already been a source of discontent with the old bill, will be turned off in many situations.

The Police Federation has raised concerns that operational effectiveness and even police safety will be damaged, and not improved, by the introduction of the technology.

A spokeswoman for the suppliers of the technology, BT Quadrant, said that the equipment used complied with international standards. She compared the equipment to GSM phones which also have to be turned off in hospitals.

A spokesman for the Police Information Technology Organisation (PITO), which is managing the Airways project, said it was working with police to devise revised operational guidelines so that safety is not compromised. He admitted there was a potential for interference and that tests were ongoing, even as the first network was been rolled out in Lancashire, to determine how bad interference might be.

In the long term a technological solution would have to be devised, he added. ®

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