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.

Challenges Ahead

The technological advances and plans for a national network do raise concerns for some.

—   Loss of local control. A few years ago, “many people in the public safety community argued against having a nationwide network,” said Jon Peha, professor of electrical engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. But many people realized emergency response will be more effective and efficient if agencies can communicate with one another.

—    Dislike of change. “This is a disruptive approach,” Peha said. “It’s not just a new technology, it’s a change in the way we organize, a change in equipment suppliers and the role of city versus federal government. Big change always brings out big arguments.”

—    Civil liberties. The new technology makes it easier for law enforcement to gather information about people, which makes some nervous. But Peha and others say the new technology just gives law enforcement the same capabilities that most consumers already have.

“It’s appropriate to have a serious discussion about when law enforcement or anybody else can use these capabilities,” Peha said. But concerns about possible misuse shouldn’t prevent public safety officials from using the technology.

—    Interagency communication. It’s great to work toward a network that lets public safety agencies communicate easily. But this also changes traditional communication and can get confusing. “When you involve police, fire, EMS, citizens and public utilities, it’s really hard to manage,” said Joe Treglia of the Syracuse University Wireless Grid Innovation Testbed (WiGiT) Lab and Madison County Sheriff’s Office.

“The police have a chain of command, and it’s very important that they follow that,” said Lee McKnight, professor of information studies at Syracuse University. “Now on the spot they’re supposed to be interacting in a new way. It does require some rethinking of policy.”

—    Possible vulnerabilities. If everyone moves to the same network, no one can communicate if that goes down, McKnight said.

—    Backward compatibility. Not every local agency can swap its current technology for new standards immediately. “No matter how wonderful 4G is, you don’t want to focus just on that,” McKnight said.

“Look at backward compatibility,” said Roberto Montoya, CEO of VRC Corp., a WiGiT partner. “There’s always a county, unit or one of our allies that was a little slower. You have to reach back to make sure you can still communicate with them.”

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.

 “Though hardware, software and our technology will move us forward, until you get the mindset of these communities to change, and then come up with standard procedures that all can agree to, you won’t take full advantage of the great work that’s being done,” Montoya said.

Jim McKay, Editor

The companies involved were Cisco, Raytheon, Nokia Siemens Networks, Reality Mobile and Amdocs. Cisco provided most of the networking equipment, while Raytheon provided project management and systems engineering.

The partners set up a temporary network that included commercial off-the-shelf technology. A suite of applications provided security and let users share video directly from one smartphone to another, and to see the location of the video on a map. The devices had push-to-talk capabilities that allowed officers to communicate with more than one person at a time without dialing a number. Officers could also see which of their colleagues were available at any given time, said Kevin McFadden, public safety solutions architect at Cisco.

Setting up the network was not easy. It had to be done quickly — although planning started in October 2011, most of the work was done in the few months before the convention. And funding also was tight. 

This meant it was challenging, for example, to find a spot to install a portable antenna tower in Tampa. It needed to be in a secure location, preferably on city-owned land. A good location was found at the Port of Tampa, but required coordination with several government offices quickly to get permission to use the site, said Bob Meyer, an executive in Raytheon’s Public Safety and Security business.

Advantages of an LTE Network

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.

A Successful Test

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.”

This story was originally published at Emergency ManagementMargaret Steen is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.

Photo courtesy of AP Images