Editor’s Note: Bill Schrier, the CIO of Seattle, authors the Notes from a City CIO blog on DigitalCommunities.com, a sister website of Government Technology.

Police officers and firefighters carry $5,000 radios. Local and state governments spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build public safety radio networks. Yet today, cell phone networks seem to be everywhere, most people carry a mobile phone and many of us think paying $199 for an iPhone is expensive.  

Why can’t cops, firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMT) use cell phones like everyone else?  Washington state legislator Reuven Carlyle from Seattle publicly argued recently for this approach in his blog. And at first, this appears to be a simple way for governments to save a lot of taxpayer dollars.

But here are a few reasons public safety officers need their own dedicated networks:

Priority

Cellular networks don’t prioritize their users or traffic. A teenager’s cell phone has the same priority as a cell phone used by a police officer or, for that matter, the BlackBerry used by President Barack Obama. We’ve all experienced “no circuits available” or “network busy” when using a cell phone. When I’m being assaulted or have been injured in an automobile accident or even have had my house burglarized, the last thing I want is to have the network be “busy” so a police officer or EMT couldn’t be dispatched. Public safety needs dedicated frequencies where police officers and firefighters have priority and even perhaps exclusive rights to for use, without the public clogging calls.

Reliability

Seattle’s public safety radio network, part of the larger King County 800 MHz public safety radio network, handles more than 60,000 police, fire and emergency medical calls every day. It operated last year with 99.9994 percent reliability — about 189 seconds of downtime out of more than 31 million seconds in 2009. On average, only about five out of the 60,000 calls were delayed for any reason, and even then the average delay was about two seconds.  What cell phone network has that kind of reliability? How many times have you experienced “no service” or “call dropped” with your cell phone? Do we want firefighters who are reviving a heart attack victim and talking to the emergency room on the radio to all of a sudden have their call dropped? Or should police officers lose service when drunk drivers clog the roads and bars close at 2 a.m. because a cell phone company decides to do maintenance because “no one uses the network then?”

Disasters

Even small disasters cause cell phone networks to collapse. In Seattle, we’ve had SWAT team actions or car accidents that have shut down a freeway.  Suddenly cell phone service abruptly ceases in that area because everyone is on their phone. A few years ago, a rifleman was loose and shooting people in Tacoma Mall. Responding police and EMTs had communications because they had dedicated networks and frequencies, but again cell phone networks were overloaded and down. In a larger disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane (with an associated evacuation of large cities), commercial networks will be overloaded or jammed for days by people trying to escape the affected areas. Do we want police and fire departments — or even transportation, electric utilities and public works departments — trying to use those same networks while they are responding to the disaster? I don’t think so.

Talk-around

A key feature of most government-operated networks is something called talk-around or simplex or “walkie-talkie” mode. In this mode, individual radios talk directly to each other, without using a radio or cell tower. This is very important at incident scenes, for instance, as firefighters commonly use it at the scene of a fire because the radios will operate at the scene even if there isn’t a tower nearby. But this never is a feature of cellular phone networks. If the cell tower is down or out of range, that cell phone in your hands is a useless lump of plastic. But the radios of public safety officers still work and will talk to each other even without the tower.

Ruggedness

No firefighter in his or her right mind would fight a fire using a cell phone for communications. The heat, water and ruggedness of the environment would quickly destroy the device. Yet most public safety radios will survive being dropped repeatedly on the ground or being immersed in water for 30 minutes or more. No standard cell phone can survive the rigorous work of firefighting or policing.

Are there problems with the current dedicated public safety networks? Absolutely. They use proprietary technologies, for example, like Project 25. Theoretically all Project 25 radios work on any Project 25 radio system. But only a few of those are deployed across the nation. These proprietary technologies are one reason the radios cost up to $5,000 each.

In his blog, state Rep. Carlyle proposes that we deploy Tetra radios for public safety. While Tetra is common in some parts of the world, it is not used at all in the United States. This is a dangerous proposal, because it means Tetra networks we buy would not work with the equipment used by any other government or telecommunications carrier anywhere else in the United States. However, if called to respond to a disaster overseas, we could talk to firefighters in Hong Kong or the police in Ireland.

Bill Schrier  |  Contributing Writer

Bill Schrier is senior policy advisor in the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) at the State of Washington.  In this capacity he chairs the State Interoperability Executive Committee (SIEC), serves as the primary point of contact for the FirstNet effort in the state and advises the CIO on other matters.

In the past he served as the Deputy Director of the Center for Digital Government.   He also retired in May, 2012, after over 8 years serving as Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for the City of Seattle and director of the city's Department of Information Technology (DoIT).  In this capacity he managed over 200 employees and budgets up to $59 million to support city government technology, and reported directly to Mayor Michael McGinn. 

Schrier was named one of Government Technology’s 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers in 2008, and a Computerworld Premier 100 Leader for 2010.  He writes a blog about the intersection of information technology and government, how they sometimes collide but often influence and change each other.   He tweets at www.twitter.com/billschrier

Schrier is a retired officer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He holds a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Washington.

E-mail:       bill@schrier.org
Phone:      206-255-2156