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Houston Tests Devices and Apps Using FirstNet Spectrum

Testing is an opportunity to public safety industry a glimpse into tech adoption for first responders.

When the spotlight is on for a major national event like the Super Bowl, the opportunities to demonstrate cutting-edge public safety communications technologies abound.  In addition to better game-day communications, there is often the belief that the investment in innovative technologies will positively improve day-to-day operations when the spotlight fades.

For Harris County and the city of Houston, Super Bowl LI hosted in 2017 has been in the rearview mirror for more than a year and according to public safety leaders and responders, the lasting impact of new technologies is real.

In fact, FirstNet Authority recently discussed the ongoing public safety technology projects that resulted from Super Bowl LI with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO), Harris County’s Central Technology Services (CTS), and city of Houston Fire and Police departments.  Each said the lasting impact is not only real – it is transformational. 

“My only regret is that I don’t have the budget to put these tools into the hands of every officer right now,” said Matt Slinkard, Executive Assistant Chief for the Houston Police Department.  “Our officers need these capabilities in their everyday job and it is our hope that efforts like FirstNet will help us make this a reality in the future.”

FirstNet is the nationwide public safety broadband network. It is a dedicated LTE communications ecosystem complete with devices and apps to help first responders in every state and territory with their lifesaving mission. Through the Harris County FirstNet Early Builder project, agencies were able to test devices and apps at Super Bowl LI using FirstNet spectrum. Today, Harris County is transitioning those devices to the FirstNet network.

In a true demonstration of the adaptability of data communications, the changes brought about for the Houston area’s public safety community are quite different. This offers the opportunity for FirstNet and the entire public safety industry to get a glimpse into the technology adoption cycle for responders.

Tools for daily operations

Darryl Coleman, chief of the Criminal Justice Command for the HCSO (Major, Homeland Security Command during Super Bowl LI) said “The Super Bowl did two things for me. First, it showed me that these technologies can break down interoperability walls because people can share what they want – and not share what they don’t want.  I can communicate with everyone or a group or just an individual through apps. You can’t do that with two-way radios because the whole group hears it.”

“The second thing is confidence,” Coleman said. “We saw firsthand that these tools worked at the Super Bowl so when I was blessed with a new command, I felt I could put it to work solving problems.  They weren’t the same problems as the Super Bowl because this communication is internally focused not interdepartmentally focused.  But I said, ‘Hey, let’s give it a shot.’”

Coleman oversees one of the largest criminal justice complexes in the United States—10,000 inmates, 2,600 employees, 96 courts. And Hurricane Harvey soon brought another challenge: all criminal courts had to be moved to temporary quarters in multiple buildings due to the flooding of the criminal courthouse.  That meant transporting thousands of inmates for court appearances from the jail to different buildings in the heart of downtown Houston every day.

Luckily, Coleman had already reached out to Niki Papazoglakis with Harris County’s Public Safety Technology Services, who was hard at work analyzing workflows and setting up the app to improve court functions.  “I wondered if Chief Coleman would pull the plug on the whole thing when the flood hit,” said Papazoglakis. “But instead he decided this was the best time to put the plan into action.”

The mobile app helps the court system to function efficiently in a highly dynamic environment. With the app, the Sheriff’s office is now equipped with the information they need at their fingertips to securely bring inmates to the correct courtroom at their appointed docket time.

What’s next? 

“Now I have even more confidence.” Coleman said.  “I don’t know where this technology can take us, but I figure we will keep throwing problems at it and see how many it can solve.  We’ve laid a good foundation.” 

Improving communications between personnel at the county jail through apps might be the next challenge on the list for Coleman.  “Regular telephones are not meeting the needs in the jail.  I want to be able to reach actual staff – not a phone in a pod.  Two-way radio transmission is blocked from floor to floor, so this pilot will use apps to overcome this issue.  If it works, it will be a huge productivity and morale boost,” he explained.

Multiple teams from the Houston Police Department are also continuing to use public safety apps from the Super Bowl. One of those is SWAT.

“We are using the apps for everything from serving felony warrants to the Barbara Bush funeral coordination and FLOTUS detail,” according to SWAT Sgt. Tommy Calabro.  “The collaboration app lets us work together in a really organized way.  When we are planning even a simple felony warrant, there is a lot to coordinate and share.  Conops, warrant documents, photos and family intelligence, floor plans – all of it sent out to the team early so that the actual planning meetings are more productive and quicker. Someone asks for something, it is right here [on a smartphone]. And afterwards, report writing is easier.  I do most of my paperwork on my phone because it is all right there.”

During Harvey flooding, Calabro was also one of the fortunate groups equipped to use the app to coordinate his team. 

Lt. Michelle Chavez in the Emergency Operations Center could see the difference. “The groups without the app were struggling with paper and clipboards.  Although they did an amazing job with radio and whiteboard, the difficulty in coordinating team members with just those tools was a real contrast to the groups that had the apps and were comfortable using them.”

That “comfort level” is an important factor for success.  “You can’t assume that someone who used it during the Super Bowl can pick it up today and be effective immediately.  Everyday use is key to keeping fresh,” Chavez said.

Although the Super Bowl was a massive event that impacted the entire area, Houston is no stranger to big events.  In fact, a large special event happens here almost every week.  Now, public safety applications used during the Super Bowl have become standard operating procedure for interoperation between various agencies throughout the region. 

So, when one recent planned event unexpectedly drew a larger crowd, Houston PD and Fire were ready. “When the Astros won the World Series we only had two days to plan for the parade,” Calabro said.  “Our app allowed us to sketch out a plan in minutes and share it immediately. 

verything was followed up formally but getting that initial plan disseminated quickly so that people could get started was important.” The app became more important as the celebration mushroomed from an expected 250,000 spectators to more than a million.

Assistant Chief Rodney Reed of the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office said that in addition to planned events, unplanned incidents like Harvey and active shooters show the growing need for a more collaborative, integrated response. “We are seeing a convergence of our fire, EMS, and law enforcement to manage a unified operation, Reed said. “We all have to be working together, and we need a mechanism for us to share this information.”

In the future, governance will be important to ensuring continued collaboration efforts.  “Deciding what apps to adopt regionally is critical,” said Papazoglakis. “We need to decide on and implement apps that work regionally so that we can come together quickly when necessary.  No single agency can decide that – it has to be a collaboration and a partnership.  But I think we can get it done.  We’ve seen how well it works when we work together!”

Tools for Location Tracking

For Executive Assistant Fire Chief Richard Mann of the Houston Fire Department, tracking personnel during the Super Bowl and other special events is crucial.  “When we know where personnel are through apps and GIS, we can be sure everyone is accounted for and also react quicker to a call for service because we know the closest resource.  It just allows us to manage more efficiently.”

GIS tracking is not currently implemented for apparatus or personnel on an everyday basis but that is soon to change for at least one Houston Fire Department division. “We plan to use the app from Super Bowl to track our field inspectors,” Mann said.  “We have more than 100 inspectors throughout the city every day and it is important to have accountability for safety and efficiency.”
From Demo to Daily Operations

One lesson learned was the collaboration app was best utilized for sending data for increased situational awareness. “Uniformed officers have radio for voice,” explained Papazoglakis.

Assistant Chief Larry Satterwhite also emphasized the need to maintain awareness. “Information is good, but it can’t be a substitute for being aware of your surroundings,” said Satterwhite. “At the Super Bowl, we paired officers – one to run the device and one to be ‘heads up’ and watching.  It was important for safety but also for the optics.  People tend to equate looking at a smartphone to recreation rather than working.  We hope FirstNet will spur future tools that equip us to do both well.”

Although public safety agencies in the Houston area have implemented apps differently, one common denominator was clear: support