Public Safety Agencies Are in Hot Pursuit of 4G Infrastructure

Bandwidth-hungry data applications for public safety make better networks a necessity.

by false / April 18, 2011
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About This Report

Material in this report is drawn from the Digital Communities Law Enforcement IT Task Force, a collaborative networking group for government IT professionals. The group exchanges information and experiences through online and face-to-face meetings. The goal is to help municipal and regional government members make smarter technology decisions for their communities.  


Keeping pace with the speed at which most citizens access Web data is imperative for public safety agencies. As technology empowers people to know more about what’s around them faster, expectations rise for how quickly others also should be in the know. Citizens are bound to be unforgiving when poor data access prevents first responders from saving lives. Technology exists for field responders to obtain real-time data from crime databases, map databases, hospitals and other sources that can accelerate field operations. The problem is that many localities still lack networks sufficient to handle such demanding applications. Funding is scarce, and officials squabble over technology preferences. When agencies overcome those obstacles, the upgrades make jurisdictions and citizens safer. This Digital Communities Quarterly Report highlights governments that are making this a reality. The report also addresses how funding was secured to make the networks feasible. In many cases, this means collaborating with neighboring jurisdictions, breaking old habits and reorganizing processes. As economic difficulties continue choking agencies, perhaps the next few years will bring the creativity necessary for deploying high-capacity public safety networks.

The Digital Communities Law Enforcement IT Task Force urges public safety agencies to make implementing fourth-generation (4G) communications infrastructure a top priority. Wireless networks with 4G capability have faster speeds and offer more flexibility in how bandwidth is used. This empowers networks to pass more data to responders, enabling them to manage situations more effectively. The wireless capabilities usually available to responders make accessing data from hospitals, the National Crime Information Center and numerous other sources difficult. Pulling down the data frequently requires bandwidth-hungry applications, which many public safety wireless networks can’t handle. What follows is a discussion of areas of emergency response needing high-capacity network connectivity and how local governments are addressing that need.

Need for More Cameras

Security cameras usually rely on robust broadband, but jurisdictions can’t extend fiber and cabling everywhere to support the devices. Deployments are expensive, time-consuming and often physically impossible. Frequently existing infrastructure presents physical obstacles. Consequently in locations where jurisdictions can’t run fiber and cabling, crimes and other incidents go unrecorded. In March 2010, for example, a man stabbed two people to death on a New York City subway. No security cameras were present nearby, so police couldn’t identify the murderer.

In settings where cameras are more plentiful, multiple systems from different vendors deployed across local jurisdictions make it difficult for dispatchers and emergency personnel to see all camera views from a single location, which would help them better coordinate their efforts.

Law enforcement’s obvious need is cameras that don’t require fiber, cables or trenching. Jurisdictions could add temporary installations for events, which they could easily move to areas where crime is increasing or a disaster is imminent. Such devices should enable cities and regions to add cameras across jurisdictional, geographical and technical lines on a single system. Dispatchers could see all camera views from a single location, and first responders could potentially see any camera view from a mobile device.

4G Camera Capabilities and Applications

Security cameras have up to a 100 percent rate of deterrence on crime in certain sections of Honolulu, according to city CIO Gordon Bruce. Traditionally the city installed cameras where it could wire them back to a central location for monitoring. Sometimes digging trenches and performing other expensive, disruptive work was necessary to reach potential sites.

Honolulu is addressing its blind spots with mobile IP broadband cameras that switch between 3G and 4G wireless functionality. Police can position the cameras temporarily or permanently wherever they’re needed. The 4G bandwidth increases the number of visible frames of action that a camera can relay, offering approximately 20 frames per second. The industry’s 3G technologies are slower and leave lapses in footage. Honolulu has a patchwork of different surveillance camera networks, mostly 3G, but some are 4G and use WiMAX. The Honolulu Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services Division attaches the cameras to long booms hooked to vehicles to monitor surfers. Beach surfboard lockers also utilize 4G surveillance functionality, as do cash boxes on city buses.   

In addition to placing the cameras in any public place necessary, Honolulu hopes to mount the devices in police vehicles. The city has already deployed more than 300 security cameras, most of which are wired.

The current nationwide rollout of 4G wireless is enabling high-quality IP-based video surveillance. Jurisdictions with 4G wireless service available, including parts of Atlanta and other major cities, are already seeing an increase in mobile cameras.

Honolulu will use wired, wireless and mobile IP cameras to secure the city in November when it hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, which will draw leaders from 20 nations. In the past, the city would have struggled to provide the surveillance needed for such an event. However, mobile 4G cameras offer the level of surveillance the conference requires quickly, temporarily and more cheaply than permanent camera installations. The cameras easily sync with existing wireless IP networks. Because the devices are mobile, they can be deployed quickly to assist officers in the field as events unfold. As new officers arrive at a crime event, those already at the scene can share video they are recording or have already recorded.

Existing camera systems around Honolulu, from Chinatown to Waikiki, are divergent and incompatible, making it difficult to see all camera views from any one location. As a solution, Honolulu identified an enterprisewide access control and monitoring system, which will be used as a citywide standard. As the older systems break down, cameras will move over to this system. Honolulu plans to use a few compatible vendors or just one vendor so the system will interoperate citywide.

Honolulu sees great potential for cost savings from the 3G/4G cameras. For example, if a suspect falsely accuses an officer of inappropriate behavior, the city may have camera footage to refute it. This can save Honolulu funds that would have been spent defending lawsuits. The city also plans to mount the cameras in prison cellblocks and staging areas where convicts are processed.

Responder Communications and Data Sharing

Many local governments enlist help from agencies in neighboring cities or counties to address fleeing felons who cross jurisdictional lines, fires that rage out of control and other natural disasters. Given that dispatchers and responders have no immediate view of the assistance available, help may be too little, too late, too much or the wrong kind. Franklin County, Mass., is responding to this problem by deploying a microwave network to extend 4G wireless broadband from fiber-optic cable. Across that network, police officers, firefighters and paramedics will use mobile devices to see data that’s available to dispatchers, including responders en route or at dispatchers’ disposal. Various agencies and jurisdictions will communicate in real time with one another on a single, interoperable 4G network using mobile devices like ruggedized handhelds and laptops. This will save time and increase the accuracy of coordinated responses during emergencies. Through the mobile devices, responders will have access to multiple databases they previously couldn’t access from the field. The devices will connect to the National Crime Information Center database and the Criminal Justice Information System in Massachusetts. Law enforcement officers will immediately be able to check identities and search warrants when dealing with detained people who resist being identified. Rather than trying to identify people by describing them to a dispatcher, officers can search the databases themselves, which may include images of tattoos, scars and other distinctive characteristics.

Advanced broadband capabilities are essential for firefighters who may be at the scene of a fire for an extended length of time. They need to see streaming information that will help them track weather patterns and other data. Using 4G video capabilities in mobile devices, firefighters can send videos of the fire and its environment to other agencies and personnel who need the information.

Funding Through Centralization and Consolidation

One way governments can maximize 4G application investments is by funding projects that emphasize centralization and consolidation. In each case previously discussed, dollars went further because one system was adopted by multiple agencies that shared the costs. In September 2006, four counties in western Massachusetts, including Franklin County, collaborated to install a centralized system of technologies. The consortium enabled participating agencies in the region to share key emergency event data. The counties received money from the Western Regional Homeland Security Advisory Council to fund the endeavor. Massachusetts has five regional Homeland Security Advisory Councils, each of which organizes federal homeland security funds for its members. In September 2008, Franklin County hired an IT public safety consultant to advise on how to further its efforts. They moved forward with plans to create an interoperable system to share between all emergency services in the county including police, fire and emergency medical services. The system will allow a central dispatcher to see real-time snapshots of events and resources, and coordinate the efforts of multiple departments. The new system will facilitate police records management, incident recording and arrest documentation. The package also will include fire records management with access to building blueprints, preplanning documents, mobile data, field reporting data and information about available personnel.

Franklin County will install the software on one server that will cover 20 jurisdictions. By avoiding the cost of 19 additional servers and software to cover all the jurisdictions independently, the county will save 95 percent of the originally foreseen cost. The software vendor will only need to support one machine, therefore lowering support costs as well. The joint arrangement connects several communities to equipment they couldn’t afford on their own. The county will gain additional efficiencies and cost savings once it consolidates multiple dispatch centers into one center for the region. A savings in hardware and physical building sites is also expected.

Because the new architecture is centralized and virtual, dispatchers will be able to work from less expensive remote desktops. Each desktop may be a fraction of the cost of a full workstation. The difference could be that of a $500 desktop instead of a $2,000 workstation. Thousands of dollars in savings are expected for each agency. The central server should allow hardware cost savings for field workers.

In another example of consolidation and centralization, Palm Beach County, Fla.’s system will record 911 calls centrally on two recorders, eliminating the need for 20 additional recorders (one for each public safety answering point). The recorders cost $150,000 each plus annual maintenance and support costs. As the county must replace the recorders every five years, it will save more than $3 million every five years.

Honolulu is freeing up money by consolidating its traffic management system with Hawaii’s traffic management system, first responder dispatch center and Department of Emergency Management. Honolulu also is adopting the same enterprisewide emergency response system Virginia uses. The Virginia Interoperability Picture for Emergency Response (VIPER) is a GIS-based system that integrates camera systems, disaster scenarios and first responder location tracking. Field officials use this data when responding to car accidents, disasters, crimes and toxic chemical spills. The VIPER approach is growing in popularity in states and counties across the country, including Vermont.