Public Safety Advocate: The Future of Public Safety Communications

Tue Nov 22 17:15:01 2016

First of all, I’d like to wish a very happy Thanksgiving week to all of you in the United States, and I hope all of our out of country readers have a great week too!

Now for the subject at hand. While we are waiting for FirstNet to announce the RFP winner and the future FirstNet Partner, I have been thinking about the future of Public Safety Communications. Here are some of my thoughts:

1) Will it become all about FirstNet and LTE for voice, data, video, location services, and anything else Public Safety needs to properly communicate both on a daily and major incident basis?
a. If so, how long will the transition take and what needs to be done to prepare FirstNet?

2) Will it remain split between existing Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems across the country and FirstNet?
a. Will there be devices that are combination FirstNet and LMR-capable and if so when?

3) Will the Public Safety community end up on FirstNet for data, video, and interoperable PTT with 700-MHz LMR being the only band used for off-FirstNet voice communications?

4) Will FirstNet be stillborn and Public Safety be left only with the spectrum it has today minus the T-Band (470–512-MHZ shared TV channels), which has been taken away from the 11 major metro areas that really need it to communicate.

The answer could be one of the above, some of the above, or more than likely for a long time, choices 1, 2, and 3 in various configurations. Unfortunately, the chances of reversing Congress’ taking away the T-Band and returning it for TV service (for the less than 20% who watch TV over the air?) are slim to none. The spectrum is worth too much money as the 600-MHz auctions will require repacking the TV stations in the 600-MHz portion of the band into the lower TV spectrum including the T-Band channels. After all, money is king in DC, nothing else seems to matter to those steering our ship. Our only chance is if the 600-MHz auctions fail.

The disconnect between what Public Safety needs and what it will end up with has nothing at all to do with technology issues, rather it is primarily based on political and funding issues. The Public Safety community is fairly vocal about what it needs to do their jobs, protect the citizens of the country, and to protect themselves. However, what Public Safety needs takes allocations of funds, sometimes from local cities and counties, sometimes from states, and sometimes from the federal government.

The disconnect is that those who control the purse strings are elected officials, not Public Safety personnel. Elected and appointed folks have been using cell phones for a number of years now. Yes, they have suffered a few dropped calls, and perhaps a lack of service during a major incident, but on the whole they would tell you the wireless phones in their hands are:

1) Very reliable
2) Fully Interoperable
3) Affordable
4) Easy to use
5) Inexpensive

They don’t understand that the wireless operator for their nation, city, or county pays to provide them with service and has spent $30 billion, $40 billion, or more to build and operate the network. All they know is what it costs them personally or what it costs their city, county, or state for the device and service. These elected officials are the same ones who are presented with recommendations to award an RFP contract to a Land Mobile Radio vendor for several million dollars to replace or enhance its jurisdiction’s LMR systems. These folks “know” from what they have read and what the non-Public Safety community is promising, that FirstNet will negate the need for LMR and all the money their jurisdiction is having to pay to keep it operational.

There is, and always has been, a big disconnect between elected officials who control the funds for a jurisdiction and those charged with protecting that jurisdiction who are often denied the funds they require to help them do the job and keep the citizens and Public Safety community safe. After all, the elected official can punch a few buttons and talk to anyone anywhere in the world in only a few seconds. Why does Public Safety need more than that?

Over the years there have been hundreds of articles aimed at the political community about the needs of the Public Safety community. Unfortunately, there have also been many technologists or people who work on standards who are NOT within the Public Safety community who continue to point out how close we are to having, for example, Mission Critical Push-To-Talk (PTT) over FirstNet and how soon FirstNet will become the only network Public Safety will ever need. None of these folks have, I believe, ridden in a police car, fire rig, or EMS van on a Friday or Saturday night for an entire shift listening to the radio, responding to calls, and listening to what other units are responding to so they are up to speed and perhaps can start moving in the direction of what sounds like a bad incident.

They have probably never been standing in a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) or dispatch center as I have on July 4th in Los Angeles when each paramedic squad is assigned to an incident and then, in route, is reassigned to an incident deemed more critical. Neither have folks who make public declarations of how soon Public Safety will be able to abandon Land Mobile Radio in favor or FirstNet or the elected officials who control the purse strings ever been in the command center of the Chicago PD on the evening of July 4th when the fireworks display is about to start on the lake and seen that their commercial video and data broadband system is down because too many citizens are using the network to stream the event live up to their social media sites and the only form of communications left to police, fire, and EMS is their LMR voice systems.

As FirstNet is built, and as broadband 4G and 5G technology becomes more robust and more mission critical, there will be a transition at some point for the Public Safety community make more use of FirstNet. However, this won’t happen when those elected to office decide to deny funding of a new LMR system or an upgrade, and it won’t happen when those working in a federal research facility or the worldwide standards organizations say it is ready. It will happen when Public Safety begins to trust FirstNet enough to start using it more and more and LMR less and less.

It will happen when and IF the Public Safety community trusts FirstNet’s network as much as it trusts today’s LMR networks and not until. Taking away LMR networks before Public Safety says FirstNet is 100% ready would be a disaster for anyone who makes that decision and for elected officials, those who pushed the technology in the standards bodies, and the Public Safety community at large.

FirstNet is of vital importance to Public Safety and to the populations it serves but it is NOT yet the do all, be all, no need for anything else network that some people seem to think it is. It is a new tool for Public Safety but it is one of many tools it needs and it will be augmented for many, many years by the LMR systems already in operation and those that need to be built. Forcing something on Public Safety is never a good idea. If you back these folks into a corner you will get burned, of that you can count on!

Andrew M. Seybold

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