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Mobile County, Ala., Uses App to Supplement Radio Communications

“BeOn” app extends the reach of narrow band communications for public safety officials whose duties usually keep them off the front lines.

by / March 22, 2013
Image courtesy of Harris Corporation.

Traditional push-to-talk radios have an important role to play in public safety. Ruggedized radios operate within the narrow band network, providing a key communications link among first responders and back to central command. But not every public safety official has a need for a high-end radio that can survive any number of emergency scenarios.

As director of Public Safety Communications for Mobile County, Ala., Eric Linsley oversees all critical communications services, and helps to ensure that infrastructure and equipment is enabling public safety personnel to effectively serve the more than 400,000 residents spread across 1,644 square miles.

Mobile County's first responders use radio communications systems from Harris Corp., a Florida-based telecommunications equipment provider. Currently the county is upgrading from a legacy system to a 700 MHz P25 system, but the radios have effectively met the county’s needs -- and a new app from Harris is adding some much appreciated functionality to communications enabled by the current radio system.

“BeOn”, now deployed in Mobile County, allows personnel with cellphones to communicate with first responders on ruggedized radios, leveraging cellphone and broadband networks.

David Simon, project manager for BeOn and other Harris applications, admits that consumer grade smartphones aren’t a realistic communications link for public safety workers whose daily job duties require more durable equipment.

But using the app, administrators and other staff members who need access to first responders can now stay informed and keep in communication with those on the front lines, without straining narrow band communications bandwidth. And deployment of the app in Mobile County to select county officials via their Android smartphones took less than one day, Linsley said. 
The wider broadband network used by BeOn smartphone users overcomes distinct limitation of land mobile radio systems. Previously, traveling outside the local jurisdiction meant you were no longer connected to front-line communications.

“Now, users are able to connect and stay informed from virtually anywhere,” Linsley said, explaining that even when attending an out-of-state trade conference, he could keep easily in touch with his team in the same way he could while at home.

“One of the advantages that BeOn brings to the table,” Simon told Government Technology, “is the ability to travel outside the coverage area and anywhere in the country -- and really anywhere around the world -- and be able to monitor their talk groups, and if an emergency occurred, participate in the communications. I could literally be on the beach in Miami, Florida, and be able to talk back to commanding officers if there was a disaster back in my jurisdiction.”

Harris is also targeting energy companies, public works departments and transportation agencies as potential users that might benefit from BeOn. Many cities, Simon explained, equip transportation workers and other public employees with ruggedized radios for those occasions when they need a direct link to law enforcement. The majority of their communications, however, are internal to their own department. Cities can save money on equipment by opting for smartphones over radios for these employees, while maintaining their ability to reach law enforcement quickly when needed using BeOn.

“It can be a lower cost experience and it can save capacity on your radio systems," Simon said, "because you are able to communicate on the cellular network and not eat up capacity on your radio system for those less critical needs."

According to Simon, Harris is working on a number of improvements to the BeOn app, including the ability to indicate users’ location and availability, and a desktop version of the app that can run in the background for users who are largely desk-bound. Video capture and sharing ability through the app will be added as well. Users in Mobile County have asked the company to develop the app for the Apple operating system, as right now it is only offered on Android.

Image courtesy of Harris Corp.

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Noelle Knell Editor

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.

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