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First Response Won’t Use FirstNet

Responders speeding to a crime or fire don’t have time to look at photos, video or smartphone screens.

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) is designing a nationwide wireless broadband LTE network for use by public safety. “Public safety” specifically includes traditional first responders — law enforcement, firefighting and emergency medical response. But “public safety” also includes other services such as electrical and water utilities, transportation and even building inspectors — having structures built to withstand hurricanes and earthquakes is definitely a “public safety” issue!

In the FirstNet design process, we emphasize “first response”. We’ve developed a number of scenarios for such responses, for example school shootings, SWAT team actions, home and apartment fires, automobile accidents with injuries, and so forth. We think about scenarios where first responders are racing to a scene, lights flashing and sirens blaring, and what information they’ll be pulling down wirelessly to their smartphones or tablet computers to support the response.

But, frankly, most of the first responders to such incidents use a public safety wireless network only sparingly, if at all.
Take a “robbery in progress at a convenience store” as an example. The incident will be broadcast as a voice dispatch to a number of police units in the area of the robbery. In most cities these units will be a single police officer driving a car. The officer will speed to the scene. Perhaps live video will be broadcasting from inside the store to the police dispatch center, and could be streamed to the responding vehicles. Perhaps bystanders will be filming the incident or snapping photos of the robbers, and sending both of those to the dispatch center which, in turn, can use FirstNet to transmit such images to responding units.

Unfortunately today, at Seattle Pacific University, we had exactly this sort of incident unfold, where things happened too rapidly for anything except the use of voice radio to coordinate the response.

In such situations, frankly, the first responders will not be watching video. They’ll be fully engaged to make sure they don’t run over pedestrians or run into other vehicles as they speed to the scene. Their adrenaline will be pumping as they anticipate arriving into a dangerous situation. They will definitely listen for verbal descriptions of the perpetrators (“six foot, medium build, tan jacket”). When they arrive on the scene, they’re going to leap out of the vehicle, perhaps drawing a weapon, but definitely NOT drawing their smartphone to look at images or video. They’ll keep their eyes on the convenience store or the University classroom building and their hands free to react to whatever confronts them.

This same sort of response will play out in most other urgent situations confronting first responders — domestic violence, active shooters, fires, automobile crashes. In other words, first responders really won’t use FirstNet in most of their first responses (there’s a mouthful!).

But 4G LTE networks, including FirstNet, will be invaluable to dispatch centers and incident commanders. A police sergeant in the field would be able to view video and see audio from body-worn video or dashcam video from another officer dealing with a situation on the street elsewhere in the precinct or city. A commander in the dispatch center will be able to direct resources to the scene of a fire or hazmat situation by viewing live video and watching telemetry from the first fire units to arrive.

And responders will make considerable use of FirstNet once the initial situation on scene is stabilized. Once the patient is stabilized, emergency medical technicians will beam video of patients to hospital emergency rooms and consult with ER physicians. Detectives and police officers will use tablet computers to take photographs of the scene, video testimony, do facial recognition of witnesses and suspects (once they are in custody), search online databases, and so forth. Firefighters at a hazmat scene will need access to extensive mapping and database capabilities as they contain and manage a hazmat spill.

Admittedly, during the tense early moments of some responses, FirstNet will be invaluable. In school lockdowns or some hostage situations, responders will be able to view video from surveillance cameras inside the building. In drawn-out situations, like a major fire or wildfire, commanders will deploy robots and drones and tap into sensors inside the building, to properly direct firefighters to bring the fire under control and keep the responders safe.

Finally, we need to recognize all the potential uses by other public safety functions — control of water systems as crews fix a break or maintain a valve, or rapid isolation and repair of electrical outages using smargrid sensors. Building inspectors will be able to access, real-time, all the plans relevant to the building they are inspecting, and immediately upload images and notes about the inspection. Video from transit buses and trains can be viewed real-time in control centers to keep riders and drivers safe.

FirstNet will undoubtedly be extensively used in ways we cannot imagine today, but most useful after the sirens are silent and responders have the on-scene situation well-in-hand.
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