Public Safety Advocate: Is Disaster Communications the New Norm?

It seems as though our public safety community is spending a lot of time working with other agencies on one disaster after another. This summer and fall, the West was on fire, all at once it seems, then Hurricane Florence followed by Michael left devastation in their wake along with many deceased, injured, and now homeless citizens. Soon after Michael, Phoenix and the western states were inundated with rain, not the really heavy rains of a hurricane but a lot of rain for the area with a lot of flooding.  Motorists found themselves driving on roads overflowing with water wondering why they had even attempted passage as they were being rescued.

It seems each week and each month brings new challenges for the public safety community and for public safety communications. Since Katrina and Sandy, we have learned that generators located in basements or at ground level do not function well underwater. Even fiber back-haul that is run underground can be flooded at places where there are splice boxes, microwave dishes can be blown around, and towers can be bent over and destroyed. Each time while public safety is on the scene to save lives, rescue people, and keep looters at bay, the public safety communications side of the house is fighting its own battles to restore communications. As we saw during Katrina, without communications, it is almost impossible to deploy first responders to the right locations at the right times.

This is why off-network voice services (push-to-talk) will remain a vital function of public safety communications—it is part of what makes communications public-safety grade. As many of you know, I have been pushing for a real, cost-effective solution to Land Mobile Radio (LMR) to FirstNet and back again Push-To-Talk (PTT) with a standard that is easy to implement and to maintain. I have come to believe that the best way to accomplish this may be to work with FirstNet and have one FirstNet cell site co-located with the LMR radios at the primary radio communications location. Then the bridge between LMR and FirstNet can be established at the network level for both LMR and FirstNet and there will be plenty of ways to control the interconnection via radio or over the backhaul. This makes sense, and as a result, this site is as hardened as possible with batteries and generators to keep all the networks up and running.

FirstNet and LMR tower locations are usually separate and apart from each other and except for a few cases, including the one just mentioned, that is a good thing. During major storms, the public safety community is served by both LMR and FirstNet. If the LMR system goes down as it did during Florence, the FirstNet system takes all of the traffic, and it works the other way around as well. So, to me, public-safety grade is taking on a new meaning due to the number of times the networks have been subjected to severe weather, fires, and other natural and man-made disasters. Public-safety grade has come to mean having both LMR and FirstNet in place, providing interconnection between the two, and ensuring off-network communications are available to all units on the scene.

So far, FirstNet has been great with its emergency response to disasters, bringing in temporary cell sites and sending crews into the field to re-establish its network. The LMR community also responds to these disasters. The difference is that there are many types of organizations servicing and maintaining LMR networks. Larger cities and counties have their own people on staff while many smaller departments rely on their privately or company-owned service shops to put the LMR network back into service if needed. Some agencies have a few people on staff but have contractors lined up for tower and other work as required.

Some people believe at some point FirstNet will be able to provide all the functionality that today is only available using LMR systems. This may be a true statement sometime in the future, but does that mean it is okay to dismantle the LMR networks and rely only on FirstNet? I grew up on LMR before I began working with cellular systems so perhaps I am biased, but I keep coming back to the fact that I do not know of a single network in the world that can withstand everything nature throws at it or that terrorists might do to disable it. Knowing that LMR, FirstNet, and now more and more, WiFi is available to public safety makes more sense to me and helps me sleep at night.

The public safety community likes redundancy and having both LMR and FirstNet whenever and wherever they are needed provides a lot of redundancy. Granted, as public safety comes to rely on video and data services more and more at incidents, losing FirstNet would not be great. However, if public safety personnel still have LMR either in network form or off-network simplex communications, they can continue with their missions and know someone is watching their back at the same time. Losing LMR but having FirstNet as happened in Florence should motivate agencies that have not signed up for FirstNet to take a fresh look at the network and how the coverage has improved in many places.

During times of disaster everyone pulls together, that is what we do. During these last two hurricanes, FirstNet has been the communications glue that had been missing in other disasters. It is also why Congress listened to the needs of the public safety community and responded by providing additional broadband spectrum and forming what is now the FirstNet Authority. The fact that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), military, state, and locals have a common way of communicating helps ensure that rescue efforts are directed where they are needed most and those in charge of managing the incident have more information than ever before, enabling them to make better and faster decisions about where resources are most needed.

FirstNet came about since the 9/11 Commission called out communications as being one of the most significant issues during that terrible time. Then came Katrina and Sandy and the same issue recurred. However, during the last two hurricanes, communications as restored on both LMR and FirstNet served the public safety community well and enabled coordination between agencies, which, I am sure, made a difference in reaching those who needed to be rescued or evacuated.

We are lucky to have multiple LMR networks and FirstNet in place but we still need to find a way to solve the T-Band give-back issue to ensure the eleven major metro areas continue to have LMR capabilities. We need to protect our 4.9-GHz spectrum as well as the 6-GHz spectrum as best we can, realizing that the forces opposing public safety are not in it for any reason other than that it makes them look good by putting more money in the U.S. Treasury, never mind that public safety loses a portion of the scarce resources for which it fought so hard.

Multiple networks are better than one. FirstNet is vital to the success of public safety but so is LMR. We need to focus on making these two different types of networks talk to each other in a sensible way so every agency can afford to tie their LMR network to FirstNet when needed. Even if those who put their faith in the standards bodies such as 3GPP are correct that someday FirstNet will be able to provide all the services needed by public safety, that does not mean public safety should accept having only one network when multiple networks add redundancy and peace of mind.

Andrew M. Seybold
©2018, Andrew Seybold, Inc.


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