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When effective communications is a matter of life and death

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) provide a 24-hour maritime search and rescue service around the UK coast, and international search and rescue through HM Coastguard.

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The organisation works to promote safety and prevent the loss of life on the coast and at sea.
The UK is, of course, an island with a lot of coastline; the length of that coastline depending on the source and the method used to calculate the distance*. The MCA’s remit also includes some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, such as the Dover Strait and North Sea, so you can see the scale of the challenge the agency faces.

With over a 1,000 staff and 3,500 volunteers, the MCA is best known for its rescue work, although it has many other important roles to fulfill. These range from producing legislation and guidance on maritime matters and providing certification to seafarers, to helping to protect the environmental safety of the UK coast and its waters.

The Radio Network Infrastructure Replacement (RNIR) project

Fast, clear and reliable communications are obviously mission critical to the MCA.
Lives literally depend on it.

The agency currently uses VHF ship-to-shore radios at 155 Remote Radio Sites (RRS) around the UK coast. These are connected directly to two Data Centres (DC) via an X.21 network. A further network then connects the DCs to the 10 Coast-Guard Operating Centres (CGOC) and the National Maritime Operating Centre (NMOC). Originally introduced in the mid-1970s, the X.21 service is being withdrawn by its provider in 20??. This means that the MCA has to select a suitable partner, and procure, install and commission a new network service before this pressing deadline. As the agency is geared more towards operations than procurement, it does not have significant experience of, or expertise in, putting out tenders for major contracts or selecting suitable suppliers from the competitive proposals returned. Fortunately, the TP Group team does have in-depth experience in this field. And, following on from a previous project successfully undertaken by us, we were asked by the MCA’s management to provide guidance and assistance during the RINR project.

Working with the agency’s Information and Communications Team (ICT) - who provide all the hardware and software facilities that empower the coastguard to undertake its key task - our remit was to ensure that an appropriate service provider was identified and the subsequent contract was capable of supporting the MCA’s demanding operating criteria. The agency also needed to be sure that they followed correct government procurement procedures.

The people behind the project delivery made the difference

Our involvement began in April 2017 and is due to conclude in May 2018.

To ensure a close and fruitful working relationship, a small team of three TP Group consultants has been based in-house in the customer’s premises. These sites include the MCA head-office in Southampton and the National Maritime Operating Centre in Fareham. Our consultants have provided both the high-level programme guidance required and produced detailed project management artefacts, including Schedule, Risk Management Plan, High Level Business Requirements, System and Technical Requirements, Cost Modelling and Business Case.

Excellent working relationships between our team and various MCA and government departments have been quickly established. This has led to rapid progress on the project. It’s also helped to ensure it remains on schedule, with potential delaying factors successfully mitigated.

Steve Shrubsole, Requirements Principal of TP Group commented, ‘The Coastguard is the UK’s only nationwide ‘blue-light’ service, providing a safety-at-sea service around the clock, around the year. Its ability to do the job is wholly dependent on the communications infrastructure between the coastal radio sites and the operating centres, so our helping the agency to get this project delivered to time and specification is, genuinely, a matter of life and death. I’m proud of the role we’re playing in the important technical upgrade they are undertaking.’

One project, many challenges.. and a firm basis for future business

The timelines involved in the withdrawal and replacement of the MCA’s X.21 network, and the installation of its replacement across so many sites, has made this project a genuine challenge.

Furthermore, as the MCA only rarely conducts projects of this size, their tools and processes for doing so are not the most up to date, which has also added some complications. Last but not least, the intended life of the new network service is planned to be 10 years, but government procurement rules make the awarding of such long contracts more complicated than for shorter ones – which added another level of complexity to a project that was already time-critical.

Steve Shrubsole concluded, ‘By updating their radio network infrastructure the MCA may well experience the need to enhance the performance of, or replace, some existing equipment. I’m pleased to say they’ve voiced their intention to keep the same team with them throughout delivery of the new service to support their governance and acceptance of it.’

*According to the Ordnance Survey, GB’s mainland coastline length is 17,819.88 km, while the World Factbook (produced by the Central Intelligence Agency) calculates it to be 12,429km and the World Resource Institute records it as 19,717km.