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Directorate of Telecommunications

The history of the Directorate can be traced back to 1939, when as the Communications Branch, it started out life as a small Headquarters based group providing advice on radio communications applications to the Home Department.

It quickly became clear that technology, very much in its infancy then, had a lot to offer, but equipment and people who knew anything about it were thin on the ground. Communications Branch therefore began discussing applications with potential manufacturers in an attempt to stimulate development and improve equipment supply, forging links with industry; many of which remained in place until its closure in 1994.

Regional Wireless Stations were built around 1940. Their locations were chosen carefully as they were initially transmitting stations which broadcast on HF, messages at regular intervals to police cars across a number of countries. At this stage, police forces did not have their own radio channels or communications control rooms as we know them today. To get a message to a car, forces telephoned it in to their nearest depot, who then broadcast it using morse code at the appropriate time. This was only ONE WAY TRAFFIC but wireless stations operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on three shifts to provide the service.

VHF two way voice systems were being developed in the early 1940s but it was not until 1946 that the first county wide multistation scheme was introduced. Schemes that were then shared with the fire service. In 1947 broadcasting on HF ceased. Regional Wireless Stations were renamed Regional Wireless Depots and Communications Branch with increased technical staff was reformed to concentrate on the installation and maintenance of the new system.

Over the next 20 years, VHF two way voice systems were installed in all boroughs and counties throughout England and Wales. Police forces and fire brigades were quick to recognise the benefit of portable equipment. But early examples could hardly be described as portable by today's standards. In fact, it was not until the mid 60s, and the introduction of the PF1 Pocketphone that the personal radio arrived.

The increased volume of mobile radio equipment in use with the police forces and fire brigades by the early 60s prompted DTELS to consider ways of improving service delivery. In 1966, following discussion with customers and a pilot trial 60 detachments, small groups of technical staff detached to customers' premises, were introduced. This immediately improved service levels as customers no longer needed to send their vehicles long distances to get their radios installed and maintained.

With the wide spread of personal radios and the introduction of firemen's alerters, pagers for retained firemen in 1967, DTELS opened its first maintenance unit at Bishops Cleeve the same year where production line techniques were introduced to deal with high volume, high quality personal radio and alerter repairs.

Local Government Reorganisation in 1974 was a busy time for DTELS as most police and fire brigade VHF radio schemes needed to be rearranged. But this was only to be a warm-up for what was to follow WARC 1979.

At the World Administrative Radio Conference in 1979 it was agreed the United Kingdom emergency services would vacate the 100Mhz frequency band and be relocated elsewhere by not later than 31 Dec 1989.

And so started the biggest project DTELS had ever undertaken. Over 20,000 mobile equipments 1000 fixed transmitters, receivers and aerial systems at more than 250 remote hill top sites would need to be replaced. Without any loss of service to customers during the changeout.

All planning and procurement activities were carried out by Engineering, while all installation and commissioning activities were carried out by Field Service Operations.

New high quality aerial systems designed to withstand the harsh operational environment and significant ice build up that occurs on towers in winter were developed. Subsequent installation work was physically demanding with riggers having to climb 50 metre towers several times a day!

A number of microwave systems were also installed as part of the programme.  These were coupled to new main transmitters and receivers also purchased as part of the replacement programme.

Mobiles were fitted in a wide range of vehicles from fire appliances to police cars. This required considerable expertise to ensure the equipment's were not only fitted in safe and operationally effective locations, but also that on board vehicle electronics, such as engine management, anti lock braking and active suspension systems were not adversely affected.

Motorcycles needed special attention to ensure that the fitting of the radio equipment did not adversely effect the high speed handling of machines.

While all this was going on, there was still the day to day maintenance work to carry out, not only for police and fire brigades, but also for other customers like the Regional Crime Squads, Civil Defence and the Prison Service where there was a large CCTV commitment. In addition, technical staff had to be re-trained on all the new WARC equipment's.  It was not easy task, everybody gave their full commitment. It was thought that the department came close to the line once or twice, but still managed to acquit itself well.

The WARC programme for all DTELS customers was completed in July 1989, five months ahead of schedule, a notable and proud achievement.

Interestingly, it was not until the completion of the WARC programme that the last fire brigade got its own radio channel.

In 1989, as the WARC programme was drawing to a close, a new range of multi channel personal radios were taken into use by the emergency services. The radios were state of the art with flexible printed circuit boards and surface mounted components. Very different from earlier units. DTELS responded to the challenge by investing in new test equipment and retraining staff in order that it could offer customers a competitive high quality repair service for the new generation radios. A service that proved popular, whilst continuing to increase market share in this area of business.

One of the biggest changes DTELS had to face was the introduction of direct charging for its installation and maintenance services from 1 April 1989. This led to some suggestion that DTELS would be unable to cope with the pressures of the commercial market, a mistaken perception.

DTELS responded to the change with vigour and positive management action. It introduced computerised performance monitoring and management accounting systems, and as part of a major cost reduction programme it rationalised work locations, improved efficiency and reduced spending. This enabled the DTELS to reduce prices to customers, while maintaining quality of service.

Following the name change to DTELS in 1990, the organisation continued to strive towards reducing it's cost base. It set about reviewing and improving working practices, investing in new technology and improving flexibility to meet the changing requirements of customers, coupled with government directive to operate on a more commercial footing.

For the department and staff, 1992 represented a period of major change. As part of the re-structuring exercise to steer the organisation towards the impending trade sale, a number of locations which had been an integral part of the business were closed and operation transferred to other sites.  Some of the Headquarters staff who undertook core functions, such as regulatory and spectrum assignment, were transferred to the Home Office Radio Frequency and Communications Planning Unit (RFCPU).

Headquarters, which had been based in Central London since its inception, transferred operation in October 1992 to a new purpose built establishment at Ruddington Business Park, situated to the south of Nottingham. The 30,000 sq ft building housed the management board, together with a number of teams which included engineering consultancy, specialists, training, purchasing, sales and marketing. The operation, which consolidated work previously carried out at Horseferry House (old HQ), Stanmore, Harrow, Weyhill Maintenance Planning Group and Bishops Cleeve Technical Services ceased and staff either transferred to Ruddington or other parts of the organisation, or accepted redundancy terms.

Much of the work previously carried out at Bishops Cleeve and Weyhill Maintenance Units was transferred to the Kippax Maintenance Unit, situated to the east of Leeds. Some aspects were contracted out, such as the repair of the departments vast holding of test equipment.

During 1993 the department underwent a detailed trade sale as part of the governments privatisation initiative, in which the assets were placed on the open market.  After being sifted to three prospective bidders, it was finally sold on the  1st March 1994 to National Transcommunications Limited Group (ntl) for a reported 6.5 million and became a company within the private sector.

The departments assets and staff were subsequently integrated into NTL Group and the Headquarters at Ruddington was closed during the latter half of 1994.  Inevitably, this led to reduction in staffing levels as consolidation took place to realise efficiency gains.

It is not the intention of this site to explore the why's and wherefore's of what lead up to the cessation of DTELS as a public sector organisation. For many of the staff, it was a proud association to have worked in the department during it's illustrious fifty-five year period.  It grew from the seeds of an idea in 1939 to become a major organisation with strong regulatory and technological direction, coupled with an enviable service base which was able to provide fast and localised high quality field support to a considerable and constantly growing number of Public Safety users.

Although there will be differences of opinion as to the merits of retention of the status quo, inevitably the department by nature of its business was ultimately undertaking a commercial type operation, which was probably difficult to sustain in a changing marketplace.

Acknowledgement: Ian Aitken
page updated: 15/03/19

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