Public Safety Advocate: Past, Present, and Future

Though it represents much more than a single day, this is the week we honor D-Day and the far too many brave people who lost their lives as they valiantly fought in the Normandy invasion and World War II. As I marked the day (June 6, 1944), I spent some time pondering whether having some of today’s more advanced communications equipment might have speeded their victory, but we will never know. At the time, they had handheld radios and backpacks were carried by special communications personnel. Today’s technologies are significantly more advanced and both the Navy and Marines are becoming FirstNet customers.

It is likely that the military of the future will have communications commensurate with what will be available to commercial customers but with a few twists. The advent of GHz 5G and the continuation of small cell technologies could mean every single person in the military will be always connected to a network when on active duty. Measurements of heart rates, O2 blood levels, and exposure to dangerous chemicals would be determined quickly. Meanwhile, commanders would be able to see what those in the field see, react in real time, and send unmanned vehicles to assist where needed. 

On June 1, I gave a speech in Prescott, Arizona, at the State of Arizona amateur radio convention that was co-sponsored by the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL), a nationwide organization. For about an hour, I provided a brief history of how FirstNet came about and what it took in the way of public safety pressure to convince Congress and the FCC to provide the spectrum and some of the funding for the network that is now known as “FirstNet (Built with AT&T).” During this segment, I also enjoyed sharing some of our more interesting experiences over this multi-year project. 

Early Experiences

I pointed out that one of the first bills to be introduced in the U.S. Senate was co-sponsored by John McCain and Joe Lieberman and told the story about another bill that was to be introduced by a member of the House. Four of us were invited to preview the bill only minutes before its introduction. I was assigned the task of reviewing the spectrum giveback as I was the most technical person in the room. The bill stated that in exchange for the D Block (ten more MHz of 700-MHz broadband spectrum) public safety would give all its spectrum in the 150–512-MHz range back to the government. I knew this would be a disaster for public safety and informed the others in the meeting that this spectrum was not only used by public safety, it was shared by many other services.

One staffer asked if public safety could give up some spectrum in return for the D Block because Congress expected a giveback. After I thought about it, I proposed the 420–450-MHz band even though I knew full well this spectrum belonged to the NTIA and did not fall under FCC jurisdiction. Being a ham radio operator, I also knew hams were using this spectrum nationwide for amateur radio Land Mobile Radio (LMR) repeaters. The unknowing staffer agreed with my recommendation and made the change to the spectrum specified in the bill. After I left the meeting, I reached out to the ARRL attorney in DC and explained in detail what I had done and why. I knew the NTIA would never agree to give up this spectrum and thought the ham community would be safe. I was correct on both counts. However, the ARRL attorney called me a traitor and a few other things I cannot print here. 

The bills released in both the Senate and the House withered in committee. Finally, the Middle Class Tax Relief Act of 2012 came along. One section of this Act created FirstNet and committed $7 Billion (a starter fund) to come from future FCC spectrum auctions. Unfortunately, a spectrum giveback was included in this act as well. It is vital that we stop this particular giveback now because it calls for the eleven metro areas sharing TV spectrum in the 470–512-MHz band to return the spectrum starting in 2022. Today there is no funding for this giveback nor is there any available spectrum for relocating these eleven cities and their suburbs. 

Today

An update on FirstNet indicates 7,500+ departments and 600,000+ public safety users are currently signed up. FirstNet is the broadband pipe that extends from the dispatch center outward to those in the field, and Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) is the pipe that hopefully will soon connect the public to Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs). The combination of NG911 and FirstNet will provide more information to first responders by way of pictures and videos, assist them in knowing what they are heading into, and enabling them to formulate plans on the way to the incident.

The LMR and FirstNet relationship is an essential one that will not go away anytime soon. A number of people are working on the integration of LMR/FirstNet Push-To-Talk (PTT), a task that needs to be completed as soon as possible. 

5G promises to bring many improvements to consumers and public safety alike. What we do not know is how long it will take to deploy 5G. Four companies plan to launch more than 18,000 little Low Earth Orbit satellites (LEOs) in the next few years (SpaceX has already launched sixty). I do not believe in Internet in the Sky, especially with four companies after the same markets around the world. I can foresee interest from governments, ships at sea, and perhaps even commercial airliners though Gogo is already planning to build a 5G network to upgrade its WiFi in airplanes. The need for worldwide broadband is there, but how much can those living in poor countries or rural areas where poverty levels are high afford to pay for these services?

Amateur Radio

In recapping the current state of public safety communications, I was asked to discuss the future of ham radio operators who for so many years have provided secondary communications to the public safety community, the Red Cross, and others needing communications during incidents. In summary, hams should be prepared to continue their indispensable work with public safety as it moves forward with NG911, FirstNet, and LMR integration.

Anyone in the ham radio community interested in providing emergency communications should spend time online taking FEMA courses and perhaps enrolling in in-person Comm-L courses that are being offered. Licensed ham radio operators have priority access on mesh networks that are sprouting up around the United States on the 2.4-MHz and 5.8-MHz bands. Today these mesh networks are being used to connect hospitals, Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs), and many other such facilities. Some mesh networks can be added or extended on the fly when and where needed, and they don’t rely on the Internet for interconnection since they communicate from one node to another via radio.  

Hams also have access to long-range radio. During the hurricane in Puerto Rico, hams provided some of the first communications with the U.S. mainland. They have mobile repeater systems around the United States that are tied together to cover multiple areas in one state and into other states. Some of these repeater systems are capable of one or more types of Internet interconnectivity. For example, when I am in Phoenix, I can access a local repeater and interconnect it to a repeater in Santa Barbara, Calif., in most cases, using the Internet. While the Internet is not a mission-critical means of communications, it can and does work.

The final point was that ham radio operators have yet another significant attribute. If they are trained properly and participate alongside public safety in drills, they develop a trust in each other and hams will be able to offer valuable services when public safety communications are disrupted or absent. When hams arrive on a scene, they bring their own radio equipment—handheld radios, mobile radios, base stations, portable antennas, and whatever else is needed to set up to assist public safety or to communicate with shelters, hospitals, or anywhere needed. 

Trained and skilled radio operators can and do help public safety by providing communications. As long as they confine themselves to relaying information and stay away from making decisions, everyone is appreciative of their activities. Communications is the cornerstone of handling incidents but no network is 100-percent mission critical. Public safety has both LMR and FirstNet, but there are still times and places where other forms of communications contribute to the common effort by delivering information to decision-makers and relaying resultant orders to those in the field for execution.

Note: Most of the early history slides contain information already known to our readership, so rather than reiterating here, I have attached the slide deck to this column as a PDF file for your perusal.

Repeaters in the Air

More and more agencies are using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones) for more and different tasks such as high-speed chases, providing video of damage to areas after storms or fires, and finding lost people. FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and others are launching drones that include onboard radio communications equipment. However, in this column I won’t be talking about radio systems on UAVs but rather radio systems in fixed-wing aircraft. What caught my attention this week was an email update from a good friend who is involved with communications in Santa Barbara County. 

This friend and his crew have installed many amateur radio repeaters around the area and keep them operational. They also have a business-band repeater located at the main county public safety site that is used for testing and by non-profit organizations when called out to assist in floods, fires, and other disasters, or when assisting with parade operations. This is all in addition to the fine work this group does with the amateur radio community. 

This particular person is involved with both the Sherriff’s Air Squadron that is made up of volunteers who fly their own planes using their own funds and are all vetted by the Sheriff’s Department, and the Sheriff’s Search and Rescue (SAR) organization, again a non-profit self-funded with grants and fully vetted by the Sherriff’s Department. I mention both of these organizations because his team is working toward placement of VHF FM repeaters in fixed-wing aircraft so as they circle, they can provide communications to the SAR team below that is looking for lost hikers. There are thousands of acres of forest in Santa Barbara County and some of the best hiking trails around. However, as elsewhere, hikers don’t always heed warnings to carry water, their phone, food, and other helpful items. Each year many individuals and groups become lost or someone falls into a ravine and must be rescued. Such incidents almost always happen where there is no cellular or LMR coverage.

Here is an excerpt from what he wrote to tell us about what they are doing. “At the last SAR Team meeting a few weeks ago the focus was about the limitations of Handie-Talkies used in mountainous canyons to a command post. To overcome this problem, we introduced everyone to the concept of using an Airborne Repeater. Since then our Team has come up with two identical Airborne Repeaters for Test & Evaluation (T&E). The Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Aero Squadron shall provide test flights soon as the current June overcast pattern clears. Some of our previous problems have related to overcoming the noise floor encountered in an aircraft platform configuration similar to the issue pointed out by the Butte Montana first responders (article below).

The current test system consists of two TX/RX public safety radios configured as a 12-watt repeater utilizing low current radios and a self-contained Lithium battery. Our hope is to isolate the repeater from the 12/28-volt DC electrical noise encountered in an aircraft configuration. In actual deployment the forward plan calls for rotating two aircraft in and out of a search grid. During aircraft refueling this will enable constant contact by the field team to the operations command over an extended time period.”

Prototype Repeater

Portables in the Field

The article referred to above that was published in the Montana Standard, Butte, Montana follows. 

“BUTTE, Mont. — A Butte-Silver Bow firefighter was alone in the basement of a burning building when he became separated from the hose line. It was dark and smoky but when he called for help on his handheld radio, no other firefighters could hear his mayday.

In the parking lot of Lydia’s restaurant on the outskirts of town, a man started fighting with a lone Butte police officer. He called for backup on his portable radio but nobody could understand what he was saying.

Sheriff Ed Lester and Butte-Silver Bow Fire Chief Jeff Miller say the 50-watt or 100-watt radios in police and fire vehicles work fine, but the portables needed in the field are increasingly hit-and-miss, especially inside buildings. (Photo/Pixabay)”

The departments are asking for a million dollars to help solve this problem. The solution chosen by the Santa Barbara folks represents one way to accomplish better communications when people are far from coverage, but in cases such as Butte, other solutions could be considered as well. One is use of a device Motorola first built many years ago called a PAC-RT, which soon became known as a pack-rat. This low-power transmitter and receiver is mounted in a vehicle and interfaced to the existing land mobile radio. With this setup, the portable radio does not have to talk back to the main radio system, only to the nearest vehicle where the transmission is then automatically rebroadcast on the main radio channel being used for the incident. 

These systems have been used for years by the Ohio Highway Patrol, the California Highway Patrol, and many police and fire departments. To my knowledge, Pyramid Communications is the only company that makes this type of device today. Pyramid developed cables for easy installation to almost every make and model of mobile radio and today PAC-RTs are resold by most LMR vendors.

Yet another way to accomplish the same goal is to install satellite receivers into the system, a practice that has also been used for many years. When test coverage of an area shows the main radio system can hear the transmission on a portable but cannot hear the lower-power transmitter on the handheld, inserting satellite receivers and using a receiver voting system that chooses the best receive signal will cure many coverage issues.

The Santa Barbara SAR system is different in that users are almost always out of range of any base station when walking the hiking trails trying to locate victims. Once victims are found, there needs to be a quick and easy way to notify others who may be needed to hike in with a stretcher or call for a medivac and identify a landing zone. I will be following their progress with much interest while I continue to follow developments in the UAV world that might also be of assistance.

Winding Down

It has been an interesting start to what looks to be a busy month. FirstNet continues to announce new departments coming onboard and new cell sites in tribal and remote areas, and it continues to respond to the public safety community’s needs with COWs and COLTs (Cells On Wheels and Cells On Light Trucks). Granted, some departments appear to be adamant about staying with their current broadband provider. However, during major events that require coordination between and among multiple agencies, any that are not part of FirstNet will not be part of the team that can communicate and coordinate during the event. 

In some areas the attitude is that the agency will stay with its current provider and never join FirstNet. I learned a long time ago never to say never. I suggest that if an agency is not happy with FirstNet coverage today, it probably should start installing either Sierra Wireless or Cradlepoint two-SIM modems. This will enable selection of a primary and secondary vendor to assure the best broadband coverage as FirstNet continues to evolve. Today, FirstNet is far ahead of the initial five-year build plan commitment. That does not mean the network will be finished in a five-year timeframe—remember, the contract is for twenty-five years. 

Remember too that your LMR network took time to evolve. At first, the LMR network had dead spots or spotty indoor coverage. Over time, these shortcomings were corrected, Pac-Rats and/or satellite receivers were deployed, and over the past ten years a number of regional and statewide systems have been built out. These were not simply built out and finished, they became part of an ongoing process that will incorporate LTE and Band 14, then 5G and perhaps 6G. In the meantime, we have seen enhancements including satellite backhaul for especially remote areas, vehicular systems that automatically switch both LMR and FirstNet to a mobile satellite dish installed on a car’s roof and then back to terrestrial coverage, and more. As a result of more and better technologies, public safety communications are becoming faster and more reliable. 

Before you close the door on what FirstNet can do today and into the future, talk to agencies that are successfully using the network. While I know a number of agencies are still using FirstNet and another broadband supplier, I don’t know of a single agency that has looked back after switching to FirstNet. 

Andrew M. Seybold
©2019, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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