As communications technology advances, the public safety community is looking to capitalize on the changes.
“By history and tradition, we have many thousands of separate communications systems for emergency responders in this country,” said Jon Peha, professor of electrical engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and former chief technologist with the FCC. “That means we have systems that don’t interoperate, are more prone to failure when we need them, and are vastly more expensive than they ought to be. We pay more and get less.”
Traditional public safety communication systems don’t provide services that commercial users take for granted, such as data communication and the ability to send pictures or video.
A system tested in August at the 2012 Republican National Convention (RNC) in the Tampa and St. Petersburg, Fla., area gave a glimpse into the possible future of public safety communications. Public safety agencies in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties worked with commercial vendors to test a Public Safety Long Term Evolution (LTE) network, which ran under special temporary authority from the FCC.
The technological advances and plans for a national network do raise concerns for some.
Focusing on the human factors — how it’ll be used and how to get users on board — will be critical to the success of whatever network is developed, Montoya said.
The LTE network that was tested at the RNC provides several advantages over traditional law enforcement communications.
Security. Police officers sometimes end up using their personal smartphones to, for example, send a photo of a suspect to someone who can verify if this is the person they’re searching for, McFadden said. This can be risky since the communications aren’t secure or regulated.
Dedicated bandwidth. For big events, commercial services can become saturated and can’t guarantee priority service for law enforcement or emergency management users, said Capt.
Mike Baumaister of the Tampa Police Department Criminal Intelligence Bureau. The dedicated LTE network made sure that public safety officials had access to service.
“Everybody all of a sudden turns their cellphones on and you can’t get coverage. This offers us a way to be separate from that,” Baumaister said.
Advanced technology. Typical police radios offer only voice communication and sometimes very low-speed data communication. The LTE system offered data communication, including the ability to send pictures and video.
In the past, officers have used their radios to transmit descriptions of what was happening: “‘I have a group of 50 people gathering, now growing to 100. They’re moving eastbound,’” said Sgt. Dale Moushon of the St. Petersburg Police Department Intelligence Unit. “Based on your description and their interpretation of your descriptions alone, they would manage resources.” This could involve sending in more officers, reducing the number of officers or sending specialized equipment.
Live video gives much more detail. “There’s nothing like seeing it as opposed to having somebody describe to you what they’re seeing,” Moushon said.
Having a faster, more accurate picture of what is going on can in some cases lead to less police intervention rather than more.
In one case, officials in a St. Petersburg command center were watching a wall full of screens with video feeds. At one point, people in a crowd started putting bandanas over their faces — “generally a precursor to criminal activity,” Moushon said.
Officials in the command center watched the feed from the cellphone video, but the people’s actions did not escalate. “They actually did not commit the criminal activity we expected,” Moushon said. “Because we could see it second by second — ‘They’re putting on bandanas at this point but they’re not doing anything else but walking up the street’— we had no intervention with them at all. There was no need to.”
Ability to blend in. For undercover officers, the ability to use a regular smartphone instead of a police radio helps them not draw unwanted attention.
For undercover officers, being able to use a commercial cellphone is a big plus, Moushon said. “There’s nothing worse for an undercover officer than when you need to transmit to somebody and you have to pull out a portable radio. We were able to use push-to-talk over off-the-shelf devices, so an officer with an iPhone in his hand could communicate over our regular dispatch channels to officers using portable radios.”
Supporters of the new technology hope it will also lower costs.
“Using technology that was developed for a commercial market to meet public safety needs means we’re going to have a huge reduction in costs to taxpayers,” Peha said. “We get to ride the wave of innovation.”
However, whether costs actually go down will depend on how the technology is deployed: Do the new systems replace old ones, or are they used in addition to older technology?
“It may offer a cost savings, but that’s hard to predict,” Baumaister said.
Some say the way of the future will be for this type of communication — off-the-shelf devices with dedicated applications that do what public safety officials need — to replace traditional police radios.
“We still have these 3- to 4-pound radios on our hips,” Moushon said. “The advantage to them is every time we push that button, 99.9 percent of the time it works. It’s huge for officer safety and public safety for that to happen. But that’s all it does.”
Many of these decisions are now in the hands of FirstNet, which was created by Congress in February 2012. FirstNet, or the First Responder Network Authority, is supposed to build and operate a nationwide interoperable wireless broadband network for public safety agencies. The test at the RNC was not part of FirstNet, but many players hope and expect that the LTE test exemplifies the type of technology that FirstNet will advance.
The system worked well, with no “significant operational problems,” Meyer said. “It worked the way it was supposed to when it was supposed to. It provided the communications and the video shots they were looking for.”
The LTE system was used on a small scale, Baumaister said. About 30 officers used cellphones and also carried a small pack, about the size of a modem, to make them work with the network. (If this type of network became a fully developed system, the extra equipment could be built into the phone.)
“We had backups ready to deploy if it failed,” Baumaister said. “But we didn’t need to do that because it didn’t fail.”
A key question stemming from the RNC test is whether it represents the future of public safety communications.
The thinking about its future has changed in recent years, Peha said. “Now it is generally believed that there ought to be a network of nationwide reach that operates in that band and that uses LTE technology.”
Having a national network would allow a police officer in Atlanta, for example, to contact an officer in Florida, confirm the officer’s identity and get help with whatever was needed. Currently agencies in local areas can often communicate with one another, but when there is a large event or a need for information from other areas, it’s not as easy, said Moushon.
In the future, it’s possible that the communication system could connect to office phones, computers, cellphones or the police records system, Baumaister said.
However, Peha said some questions remain such as what form the network will take and who will pay for it.
There is more than one model for how the network will be built out. It could be a dedicated public safety network, separate from a commercial network. It could also be part of the commercial network. Or it could be a hybrid, with some parts dedicated and some parts piggybacking on commercial networks.
There are two major costs to implementing a nationwide network, and they will depend on the approach the government takes, said T.J. Kennedy, director of Raytheon’s Public Safety and Security business. One is the initial cost of building the network, and the other is the ongoing maintenance costs. Building out a dedicated network would cost more up front, but leasing towers from commercial carriers would create more ongoing costs.
“At least so far, the amount of money that the federal government has put forth is nowhere near enough,” Peha said, referring to the type of network envisioned by many.
“The new FirstNet entity will make a number of critical decisions,” Peha said. “They control the budget that Congress has given for the federal contribution, and they make decisions about other aspects as well.”
Photo courtesy of AP Images