Public Safety Advocate: Part III ⏤ Devices and Applications

Since this is the last Advocate of 2018, I want to start with wishing all of you the best holidays ever, regardless of how or what you celebrate. Further, I want to express our gratitude and thanks to all of you who will be working over the holidays to keep the rest of us safe and able to enjoy the time off. Dispatchers, fire, EMS, and law enforcement personnel from local, state, and federal agencies will remain on duty while we celebrate. May you also be safe while you do your job to protect all of us.

Part III of this series is about devices available on FirstNet today, what is coming, what applications are available, and what is needed. I found it interesting that last week at the FirstNet Authority Board of Directors meeting, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) presented a report indicating that the most-used feature of FirstNet is voice. This is interesting since voice over FirstNet was the last piece of the interoperability puzzle sought by those working on the creation of FirstNet. 

Applications

First and foremost was that with FirstNet, agencies would be enabled with data and video to the field where previously they had no access. This was the major push of those involved and I believe it is what enticed Congress and the Executive Branch to sign onto the project and provide the spectrum and some funding. Perhaps voice represents the majority of the use of FirstNet (Built with AT&T) today because there are not many FirstNet-ready applications that provide services needed by those in the field. Even so, many agencies had already been using commercial broadband services on one of the major carriers for a number of years. During this time, applications that made first responders’ jobs easier and safer started to become available.

Perhaps we have not found the VisiCalc of public safety. Some of you are probably trying figure out what “VisiCalc” was. The answer is that it was the most important software application developed when personal computers were first emerging. VisiCalc, the world’s first spreadsheet application, was released in 1979. Written by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, it was the principal catalyst responsible for selling more personal computers. To this day, VisiCalc is referred to as the program that started the PC revolution in business.

Is there an application being developed that is a must-have for all agencies and will drive data and video usage? So far, I have seen some good programs but not ones that will be used by multiple agencies because each agency has already found its favorites. Some agencies I have talked with have recently converted their text-based RD-LAP slow-speed data applications to FirstNet. However, I expected the use of video to be high on the list of useful information passed from the field to dispatch centers and incoming units.

After discussing this with others, I am convinced that at the moment, the highest and best use of FirstNet during incidents is to provide important information to those in the field but not require them to respond, instead using FirstNet devices as information terminals to help them better perform their duties and stay safe. This type of application could include dispatch information beyond a voice response, conveying information for law enforcement about previous arrests at the address, if there are firearms registered, and even building layouts to assist in apprehension.

For fire and EMS, there are many uses for down-to-the-device information during an incident. Building plans, incoming units, fire hydrant locations, where law enforcement agencies are setting up roadblocks to keep people away from the incident, and more. For EMS personnel, the use of FirstNet can help determine whether a patient needs to be transported by helicopter to a trauma center or if he/she can be transported by ambulance. In addition to full twelve-lead EKGs and other vital signs, EMS personnel can use ultrasound to find out if a patient is bleeding internally and much more. The EMS industry is quickly advancing the state-of-the-art so soon a single device can be placed on a patient to monitor all of his/her vital signs.

After an incident, many agencies already file reports from the field. These reports can now be augmented with video taken during the incident or with still photos taken during a crash investigation. Over time, dispatch voice can be reduced but it won’t go away. The advantage is that Land Mobile Radio channels that have been overcrowded for years can be freed up. 

When Next-Generation 9-1-1 comes to every dispatch center (hopefully soon), incoming pictures, videos, and text messages from the reporting public can be sent directly to the field. Agencies will also be able to access cameras on a street near a scene and transmit the video to responding field units. All this helps first responders know what they are heading into and what may be needed in the way of assistance when they arrive on the scene.

Some of the best applications I have seen have been written by first responders. One package was written by a paramedic in San Diego and was quickly adopted by many departments in the area. Sometimes having software written by software professionals who have no experience with public safety leads to applications that miss the mark for meeting the needs of the public safety community. More collaboration between software developers and public safety would help introduce more and better applications into the FirstNet system and they would be more widely used. 

While I am on the subject of software, in passing, as NG 9-1-1 is installed, let’s see if we can also solve the problem of incompatibility between Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) systems so information can be shared faster and with more agencies when needed. The key to FirstNet is not so much the network, but what can be done with it. Again, using the network for interoperable voice is a good thing though it is not the highest and best use of FirstNet (Built with AT&T). This network is intended to provide video and data services to those in the field where they never had access to video or could not use these features on commercial services during major incidents. FirstNet is only twenty-two months old (from contract signing) and the focus has been on improving network coverage. However, with more than 3,600 agencies signed up, we should be able to develop some must-have data and video applications. 

Devices

The devices being used on FirstNet (Built with AT&T) are good, solid projects. Sonim, Motorola, Samsung, and Apple all offer devices capable of operating on public safety Band 14 and all of the AT&T spectrum that is now part of FirstNet. However, what we are seeing so far are first-generation devices with some gaping holes left to be filled. To me, the most important feature of a FirstNet device is that it can be used one-handed. Most smartphones today take both hands to access information, text, or even voice calling (PTT is one-handed after it is set up). Most first responders I have worked with will not be willing to tie up both of their hands during a traffic stop or other incident. Two-handed operation is acceptable before and after an incident, but during an incident they need one hand free for other actions that may be required.

The beauty of Land Mobile Radio Push-to-Talk over the years has been that speaker-mics have enabled personnel to reach for the PTT button on the speaker/mic, which is usually shoulder-mounted and easy to reach with one hand. If they have to reach down to the radio to change channels, this is normally done with a rotary switch on the top of the device on the belt. After years of use, public safety has grown accustomed to counting “clicks” on the switch. If they are told to go to channel six, they go back to channel one and count clicks until they reach six without having to look at the radio. 

Today there are radios with a lot more than sixteen channels built in and there are digital systems where the channel is selected by the network and the network changes from talk-group to talk-group, but it is the same premise. When users have to leave one talk-group and go to another, it usually requires looking at the radio to determine how to tune to the next talk-group. However, once moved to a new group, the channel switch will work for all talk-channels in that group. 

With FirstNet, like P25 digital, the channel is selected by the network, but the talk-group for PTT should be easy to change with one hand from the device. Whether by voice or clicks, users should be able to quickly know when they are on the correct channel. One thing still missing from FirstNet is multicast, the ability to send information to multiple units at the same time. When we have multicast, public safety will have even more flexibility.

Tablets

As I have said before, I think one of the most important devices for the public safety community are tablets. They can be mounted in a vehicle and at an incident, they can be quickly removed and taken into the field for use by the Incident Commander (IC). This provides the IC with a larger screen and enables him/her to keep track of incoming fire, EMS, and law enforcement vehicles, maps of the area, blueprints of buildings, or diagrams provided by car companies showing the best place to penetrate a car to remove people safely and, of course, real-time video of the incident including out of the field of the IC’s vision, or from Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Drones) flying over the incident. 

A number of tablets made by Samsung and Apple can be used for this purpose. Ruggedized tablets are offered by Panasonic and a few others that have been building rugged notebooks for public safety for many years. There is also a trend to use software by Samsung and others to take information from a FirstNet device on a belt and transfer it to a screen in the vehicle. Samsung DeXeven has a way of cradling the handset to provide charging and, I believe, connection to a remote antenna. My issues with this method are that if users are accustomed to a handheld mounted on a belt, it is located low when in the car and may not have enough signal to send and receive data. I am much more in favor of external antenna devices such as with the Sierra Wireless and Cradlepoint in-vehicle modems that are based on open standards. The Samsung solution, which is really well-designed, seems to be based on a proprietary technology. FirstNet the Authority has stated over and over again that only open-standard devices and software will be permitted on the FirstNet system. 

Returning to handheld devices, a number of next-generation devices are either available or coming to market. Harris has a four-band LMR XL-200 radio with Long-Term Evolution (LTE) built in, the Motorola LEX L11 is a hardened FirstNet-ready smartphone capable of a Bluetooth connection to a Motorola handheld radio (meaning only one device controls both LTE and LMR), Sonim has built a unit with an expansion port (we are waiting to see what devices will slide onto this radio), and there are others. This year’s International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE) and other conferences should be coming-out parties for a slew of new handheld designs.

The missing link for LTE devices is their ability to operate off-network as a one-to-one and one-to-many mode of operation, known as “simplex” in the LMR community. The 3rdGeneration Partnership Project (3GPP) has crafted a standard for this called ProSe, which I believe is dead on arrival. It uses one-quarter-watt radios with internal antennas to communicate over very short distances while LMR simplex usually uses a three-to-five-watt radio with an external antenna. The difference in communications range between the two is like night and day. The LMR radio will talk deep into buildings, many blocks around an incident, and into sub-basements from the street. It is capable of working even when in the range of the network as well as out of network, and simplex is the final mode of fallback for most LMR systems that fail during hurricanes, wildfires, etc.

Perhaps someone will find a fix for ProSe that will solve the talk distance issue and battery life of the unit but I believe the next few generations of FirstNet devices will be combination LMR/LTE FirstNet radios that provide a good viewing screen for information, and all the functions of an LMR unit for voice communications. There is plenty of interest from vendors in building new and unique products for public safety broadband—not only because of FirstNet but because public safety broadband is spreading around the globe. This is a great incentive for vendors to develop well thought-out public safety-grade devices.

Winding Down

This has been an interesting year. FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has gone from zero to one-hundred miles per hour and continues to speed up deployment and signing on agencies. Land Mobile Radio is still alive and well and will be for many years to come. Further, some companies are working on P25 system changes that will provide more robust systems with redundancy and are based on an IP back-end (private, closed network, not the Internet). 

FirstNet is IP-based and IP-based NG 9-1-1 is on its way. If we can add LMR, also IP-based, we will have all three of the most important communications factors for public safety with IP backhaul enabling all of these networks to be interconnected. This will save customers money (public safety) while offering increased redundancy.

I don’t know how long it will take to bring NG 9-1-1 online everywhere as this partly depends on what the U.S. Congress decides. I hope Congress also passes a bill to retain the T-Band for the eleven major metro areas that use it and really need it, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) leaves 4.9-GHz alone. I am afraid 6-GHz microwave has already gone to the dogs since dog collars using 6-GHz have already been approved by the FCC! We need solutions for rural broadband in addition to FirstNet covering as much of rural America as possible. Grants are currently administrated by too many different agencies, and we need to convince the federal government to stop offering grants for rural broadband that only cover fiber installation and do not include funding for long-term upkeep of these networks. 

Our wireless communications industry is healthy, 5G is coming on strong, and it should be possible to provide needed services to our first responders and the rural citizens of the nation with the resources and assets already available. Next year should be an exciting year for FirstNet (Built with AT&T), for the FirstNet Authority as it is becoming re-involved in the process, and especially for the public safety community that is and will be making use of FirstNet (Built with AT&T) in 2019. 

Happy year-end to all of you, and “be safe out there” (stolen from NYPD Blue)! 

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

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