Without question, there is an ongoing and critical need to improve the mobile wireless communications infrastructure that's used by first responders and public-safety agencies across the U.S. In fact, certain problems have acted as key barriers to effective first-responder and public-safety communications and operations. Specifically, these problems include security limitations, communication interoperability challenges, and the availability—or lack thereof—of adequate bandwidth levels for mobile wireless applications.
When the plainclothes police detective, Dick Tracy, began fighting crime in the 1930s, he communicated with his fellow crime fighters via a two-way watch radio. Since then, law-enforcement personnel have dreamed of real-time, seamless communications across agencies and jurisdictions. Across first-responder organizations, complete collaboration and information sharing is vital to effective and efficient incident command and control.
In many cities across the country, today's police, fire, Emergency Medical Services, and other federal, state, and local agencies cannot easily communicate and work with each other. Each first-responder organization uses land mobile radios (LMRs) that operate on different frequencies. This approach limits their ability to communicate. It also restricts the possibility of data transfer. When LMR users cannot communicate or coverage isn't available via traditional radio devices, cell phones and "push-to-talk" functionality are used—but mostly as secondary communications vehicles. Data communication is often reduced to a communications dispatcher reading aloud to the field unit.
A lack of system interoperability and interconnectivity also prevents information sharing. Back-end systems are simply unable to talk to one another. For example, it's usually a challenge to exchange critical law-enforcement data on known criminals from one agency to another. Police and fire dispatchers are just now seeing the deployment of integrated, computer-aided dispatch systems. But these systems have limited functionality, as they must connect to separate voice-only systems to communicate with police, fire, and EMS units.
Traditionally, mobile wireless devices operate at very-low-bandwidth levels. This statement is especially true for the legacy communications equipment that's used within the first-responder and public-safety community. As a result, the individuals who are responsible for protecting and safeguarding citizens aren't armed with the information and applications that they need to adequately perform their jobs. Ideally, emergency operations centers should disseminate large files to response personnel. But mobile wireless access to such files isn't easily available, for instance, to fire personnel headed to a scene. Likewise, it's difficult to stream video from an incident back to the operations center in order to provide situation awareness. Existing equipment doesn't support bandwidth-intensive communications.
Information security and privacy present additional considerations for operators of both wired and wireless systems. For those deploying a mobile broadband network, it's paramount to guarantee data integrity and the privacy of information. This guarantee is especially critical to the agencies and organizations that operate in the first-responder and public-safety arena. For example, evidence that's transmitted wirelessly must be safeguarded. In addition, access to the back-end systems that support mobile wireless applications must prevent unauthorized personnel from gaining entry. In an age of increasingly sophisticated terrorists, first responders also need to know that their communications will work in a crisis situation and won't be jammed, spoofed, or interfered with in any fashion.
Cities like New York are working to overcome these traditional wireless challenges. Recently, New York City released an extensive list of public-safety communications-systems requirements in its Citywide Mobile Wireless Network request. The city plans to dramatically enhance its existing mobile-wireless-communications network. In particular, it intends to significantly improve its data and video capabilities. New York also plans to deploy several new, advanced wireless applications that will support first responders and transportation personnel.
This major network upgrade is intended to deliver the following secure, high-speed data and video applications:
- Transmission of large database files including building designs, construction, and floorplan information from automated computer-aided dispatch systems. Such files also could include fingerprints, criminal records, and mug shots.
- Transmission of full-motion streaming video
- Monitoring of biological, chemical, nuclear, and radiological materials
- Control of traffic signals via wireless commands
- Capabilities for automated vehicle location
- Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) functionality with guaranteed quality of service
This new network stipulates numerous feature and functionality specifications. These specifications range from secure encrypted communications to full network flexibility and scalability. The plan is to combine an open-architecture design with the highest standards of reliability.
Obviously, cities are making important changes in the ways that they evaluate and procure wireless communication systems. These changes will have a lasting impact on the quality of these systems. Historically, cities depended on hardware and software equipment providers to determine the capabilities that they could deploy. Such decisions were based on the available functionality of proprietary systems. Now, many cities are turning to vendor-independent systems integrators. These integrators can evaluate the challenges and find best-fit products to solve difficult communication challenges. Their solutions will be based on their clients' specific needs and objectives.
Another trend is a shift in the thinking of decisionmakers. They realize that no single technology can solve all of their needs. This change will likely result in a significant reduction in the communication barriers that are faced by first responders and public-safety personnel.
Clearly, a non-traditional, systems-engineering and integration approach is needed to solve the plethora of communications challenges that exist across the different levels of government. A one-size-fits-all solution isn't the answer to supporting complex, diverse communications infrastructures. Rather, agencies require adaptable solutions that address systems with varying architectures.
Solutions will grow from flexible architectures that bring together all forms of wireless technologies while engineering in security and interoperability features. Such an approach will create a solution that adapts the overall architecture and underlying technologies to solve a specific set of challenges. For example, Northrop Grumman Information Technology's (NGIT's) mobile wireless approach, Mobileshield, is comprised of a comprehensive suite of wireless technologies including satellite, traditional cellular, LMR, Universal Mobile Telecommunications System, 802.11, proprietary IP over wireless, and mesh networks. These technologies are engineered and integrated to provide a total communications solution. The MobileShield approach provides an architecture that allows seamless interconnectivity with public and private wireline networks (SEE FIGURE).
From the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to state and local governments and agencies, people are embracing technology advancements in the mobile wireless arena. In California, Santa Clara County recently awarded a contract for an integrated voice and data wireless system. This system will link 32 of its municipal- and county-government public-safety agencies. The program, which is known as the Silicon Valley Regional Interoperability Project, will allow agencies to communicate effectively while assisting one another during major emergencies.
The Department of Homeland Security also is taking advantage of advanced mobile wireless technology and solutions to help secure and protect the nation. The department awarded a multi-million-dollar contract to engineer interoperable, wireless geospatial solutions. This system will deliver a situational-awareness capability. That capability provides location information enabled by secure wireless connectivity.
A key test of wireless interoperability will be a Department of Defense (DoD) Homeland Defense Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD). This demonstration will test the ability of local, state, and federal agencies to respond to a crisis. At the same time, it will prove out technologies and the procedures that are required to use them.
The technology itself isn't enough. It's essential that first responders know how to use the technology. They also need to recognize its benefits. In addition, they must use it regularly enough that they can rely on it to perform when they need it the most. The technology must be ingrained into their operating procedures so that using it is second nature, as it is when a firefighter or police officer is in trouble. The ACTD will be looking at how new technology fits in and how it makes the response more timely, appropriate, and effective. It also will investigate how training can be used to introduce technology to the first responders.
Unlike the past, there is some good news on resolving historical public-safety communications-network challenges. New mobile wireless technologies have a lot to offer law-enforcement agencies, fire departments, EMS, and other federal, state, and local agencies in support of their day-to-day and major incident operations.
First responders are exactly what their title suggests: the first line of defense against people or events that threaten our safety and security. They deserve the best technology that fits three fundamental criteria:
- It improves their ability to do their jobs.
- It works effectively with other systems.
- It works both safely and securely.
Today, technologies that meet those criteria are being tested and proven. They're ready for deployment. Such technologies are earning the trust of first responders and public-safety personnel. After all, secure, high-speed, interoperable mobile wireless communications is vital to the first responder's success.