Public Safety Advocate: How Many Devices Will First Responders Carry?

The following is a compilation of ideas I presented in a Mission Critical Communications article (August 2019) and in previous Advocates, along with updated information and further thoughts. 

My vision of the ultimate device for public-safety Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911), FirstNet, and Land Mobile Radio (LMR) includes a common Internet Protocol (IP) backend. Radios would be a smart combination of LMR and FirstNet that, for the most part, would be controlled by the networks. These radios would deliver information first responders need to do their jobs and they would be capable of off-network (simplex) one-to-one and one-to-many communications.

New devices with additional capabilities have become available, thus I have updated what I would like to see for first responders in the future. Some who deliver devices and services for public safety seem to believe that by simply combining NG911 and FirstNet they can offer the ultimate network configuration. I don’t subscribe to that theory. I believe FirstNet and LMR systems will coexist for many years to come. There are a number of reasons for this, including the inability of today’s broadband to provide robust off-network communications, which are vitally important to the public-safety community.

Many first responders currently carry two devices—their LMR portable and a FirstNet broadband radio—and some believe this two-device scenario will continue well into the future. However, a number of vendors including L3Harris, Motorola, and others recently brought combination LMR/FirstNet devices to market.

Even so, some using FirstNet will probably prefer to carry two radios over a combination LMR/FirstNet radio. One issue with today’s combination LMR/FirstNet radios is that applications available on FirstNet are designed for the Android operating system and/or Apple’s iOS. Combining LMR and FirstNet into a common device that can be used in the field is a great idea, but vendors have to realize that to provide full access to FirstNet Push-To-Talk (PTT), video, and data services, the LTE portion of the radios will have to be based on one of the two operating systems being used  with FirstNet devices.

One Device or Two

There are several advantages to carrying two devices. First, LMR portable radios offer a much higher transmit power along with an external antenna that dramatically improves their range. Next, the LMR portable is typically worn on the belt with a speaker/microphone placed near the user’s face. During an emergency, users can easily reach over and press the push-to-talk button near their face to report that they need assistance or some other emergency. Finally, two radios provide redundancy. The failure rate for portable radios carried by most first responders was very low before FirstNet. Now the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has developed a new standard for portables that will be used in harsh conditions such as heat, water, and other hazards. NFPA-certified radios should provide an additional level of reliability.

While some FirstNet radios do permit speaker/mics to be attached, and others employ Bluetooth to enable use of a speaker/mic, most FirstNet radios carried by first responders cannot accommodate the addition of a speaker/mic. 

Most significant is that today there is no FirstNet/LMR standard for a common nationwide fully-interoperable push-to-talk solution.

That is not to say an LMR radio is more important than a FirstNet radio. However, broadband radios provide a level of nationwide interoperability public safety has never experienced before. And they deliver text, data, and video that can be communicated throughout the first-responder community. All these types of transmissions have become important when responding to and resolving an incident. They provide more information and enable visualization of what the response involves or what else is happening at the incident. Further, those not directly involved in the incident are able to better understand its status and what may be needed to assist those on the scene.

A number of new technologies are and will be available to augment how personal devices are used and how they provide information to first responders. Some of these include heads-up displays, Artificial Intelligence (IA) alarms, reporting of responders’ vital signs including body temperature, heartbeat, etc., and notification when someone has drawn a weapon.

I fully expect that at the upcoming conferences in August, September, and October, the vendor community will be showing new standalone and combination broadband/LMR devices. It is encouraging that a number of vendors including those mentioned above have already received FirstNet (Built with AT&T) certification and have come to market. 

As the public-safety community further embraces FirstNet, I expect more vendors to develop their own concepts for LMR-only, FirstNet-only or, hopefully, combination devices. It will be interesting to watch as they unveil new products with new features and technologies. How responders or agencies decide whether to carry one or two devices will also be interesting to see. I suspect the public-safety community wil remain fairly evenly divided on this issue.

Future Devices

I also wrote that I believe a combination device will be the ultimate device for public safety. My previous comments, the comments above, and a publication from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) basically refer to the same type of device. It would be a smart device controlled primarily by the networks like today’s broadband devices. The only exception would be for off-network (simplex) operation on an as-needed basis. Also, when directed, the network would be able to switch the device to off-network, but it would remain in touch with the network for future commands.

This idea is not new nor is it out of the realm of the doable. I believe this would provide an experience in which first responders would receive the information they need for their current activities, and perhaps situational updates and awareness. It would not be necessary to change channels or change applications and, in many cases, users would not have to look at the device’s screen while engaged in an emergency situation.

I believe several things will need to happen before such a device can come to market. First, while NG911 and FirstNet are already IP-based, LMR systems need to be reworked to have an IP backend. This would enable moving data, voice, text, and other information to the appropriate radio medium and on to the appropriate user. It also means standardization of voice communications (PTT) will be needed nationwide, and there needs to be interoperability between LMR and FirstNet. Some think the 3GPP standard for Mission-Critical PTT (MCPTT) is the only solution. I disagree and hope there will soon be a common nationwide PTT system regardless of the final technology. A common PTT system could and should be implemented very soon; it does not need to wait for an envisioned device.

Going back in time, the beauty of portable LMR radios was the simplicity of the radio and the channel selector on the top. A maximum of sixteen channels were permitted on older LMR radios and when users were instructed to change from the dispatch channel (channel 1) to an off-network or direct-mode channel, for example, they would typically turn the channel selector all the way to the left (channel 1) and then count clicks as they turn the selector to the right until they reach the number of clicks corresponding to the number of the desired channel. In this way, the radio is tuned to the desired channel without having to look at it. With today’s more complex radios, users often must look at the radio to change channels. Some portables support voice enunciation, which helps, but today a typical LMR radio can have as many as several hundred or more radio channels broken into groups.

To use features other than voice on broadband radios, users must look at and interact with the screen on the front of the radio. Some support one-handed operation but others require a second hand to hold the device while the other hand is making a selection.

The two worlds of portable LMR and broadband are significantly different at present. LMR radios are generally controlled by the users. (The exception is that trunked radio systems control radios that are communicating with the network. In all other cases, they are still controlled by the users.) Okay, while FirstNet devices are generally controlled by the network, in my vision of what we should be working toward, both LMR and FirstNet are basically controlled by the networks. Of course, emergency buttons and communications should be available and users should be able to intercede with the radio if necessary. Since many of the functions will be controlled by the networks, it will be complex, but if the vendor community can build this type of combination device it should be easier for first responders to do their job and stay in touch without having to worry about what channel they are on or the format of the information they are receiving.

Until such a device is engineered and built, the first-responder community will have to deal with the issue of one or two radios. Agencies will probably make this decision for their first responders depending on their needs. My bet is we will continue down both paths. In the meantime, I am hopeful that single units will become more capable of running applications that are available today for both Android and iOS users.

As quickly as technology is advancing, I also expect to see some new form factors including, perhaps, a variety of wearable devices, body-worn cameras for law enforcement, and communications devices. Several broadband phone venders have already extended their smartphone battery life and added functions and features of body-worn cameras. It won’t be long before we see more options for public-safety communications devices. 

However, the need for NG911, FirstNet, and LMR to have common IP backends needs to be addressed before the networks can be integrated and share resources and information. NG911 and FirstNet already have IP backends, and some LMR systems are capable of using IP backends. Hopefully, more LMR systems will support IP as they are upgraded.

Next is to make sure PTT and other forms of communications over the networks can be shared across both LMR and FirstNet. Once this level of commonality is achieved, expect to see a great deal of activity focused on ensuring that new, smarter devices can be added to the networks to provide a new level of communications. Then the public-safety community will be able to proceed with its efforts without having to worry about radio equipment, and communications devices will become simply one more, albeit very important, tool.

In the meantime, expect many new and exciting products to come to market toward the end of this year and the beginning of next year. Public safety has had to make do with communications resources that lagged commercial markets by many generations. Now that FirstNet is up and running, public safety is able to keep pace with the fast-moving technologies that will provide better communications that will deliver more information in more formats. 

FirstNet Deployables

There is a great article in Urgent Communications this week about FirstNet (Built with AT&T) adding nineteen new deployable assets to help cover the needs of first responders during times of heavy use, to cover areas during incidents, and to replace damaged or destroyed cell sites until they can be rebuilt.

Three of these deployables are “communications vehicles” designed to house people, which I assume will be communications professionals. These deployables are capable of operating as standalone vehicles for up to five days on generator power they provide for communications and onsite communications management. These self-contained assets include space and equipment for the occupants to be able to sleep and eat in them.

Then there are Compact Radio Deployables (CRDs). I wrote about these a while back, and some are scheduled to be deployed in the Virgin Islands and other areas that are difficult to access during hurricane season.

Of the nineteen new vehicles, some are Cells On Light Trucks (COLTs) with satellite backhaul. These are easier to deploy and set up than some of the other assets provided by FirstNet and The FirstNet Authority.

The article quotes Fred Scalera, who is in charge of the deployable fleet and has worked tirelessly over the years to ensure deployables are available and are sent where they are needed in a timely fashion.

In his comments, Fred made it clear that this does not mark the end of expanding the deployable fleet. Indications are there will be more additions and perhaps different form factors in the future. FirstNet continues to beef up not only the FirstNet network but also the assets that are needed during incidents.

ESChat and Iridium

ESChat, a FirstNet-Certified PTT application running on the FirstNet system, and Iridium will be offering PTT over Iridium. On July 15 at 1:30 EDT, Mission Critical will host a webinar detailing this new capability over the Iridium satellite system. Josh Lober, co-founder and CEO of ESChat, will be participating in the webinar. As use of satellites increases for direct 5G broadband and backhaul for remote terrestrial systems, having PTT capabilities available via satellite in addition to LMR/broadband networks will become more important.

Winding Down

Last week we witnessed the horrific collapse of a condo building in Florida. As of this writing, public-safety professionals are still searching for survivors. The Miami-Dade rescue team is highly-trained and has been called on many times for assistance throughout the United States, including during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Other well-trained search and rescue teams that are assisting include one from Israel and one from Mexico. All of these first responders are risking their own lives in hopes of finding survivors. In addition to search and rescue, many fire, EMS, and law-enforcement personnel are on the scene contributing to the effort.

These men and women are examples of people who run toward disasters, not away from them. I have not yet seen any reports on how communications are being handled, but I assume FirstNet is playing a role by virtue of its interoperability capabilities.

Wireless Hall of Fame

Congratulations to the new inductees into the Wireless History Foundation’s Wireless Hall of Fame. You can view the list of this year’s inductees as well as a list of previous inductees on the Foundation’s website. Among the previous inductees is Sue Swenson, who served as chair of The FirstNet Authority Board of Directors, and before that she had a significant impact on many cellular systems. This year’s inductees will be honored at the Wireless History Foundation Dinner that will be held in Washington, DC in November.

Until next week…

Andrew M. Seybold
©2021, Andrew Seybold, Inc.


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