Public Safety Advocate: Too Much Technology Too Fast?

Advances in technology occur in relatively short time spans. The personal computer was on the scene for only a few years before it became a mainstream product. Portable computers went from luggables (Compaq) to notebooks in only a few years. From the time between the first BlackBerrys and Palm Pilots to Apple getting the smartphone right can be measured in just over  a decade and would have been sooner if wireless technology had advanced as quickly as the devices.

Today we are approaching a point where there are so many new technologies and ways of using them coming onto the market that it is possible the public safety community will be bombarded with too much technology too soon without time to figure out how it all fits and can work together. Below is a list of some of what is here and real, what is in process, and what is in the near future:

  • LTE broadband network (FirstNet) in process by AT&T—5-year build-out plan
  • Maintaining Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems and even expanding them—must continue
  • LTE/LMR cross-connection for Push-To-Talk (PTT)—here now, the standard will come sometime in the future
  • 5G small cell deployment—this year and next will see beginning of small cell roll-out
  • Internet of Things (IoT) device-to-device communications, alarms, alerts—and more
  • In-building 3-dimensional location—FCC requirements are not adequate; metro solution is available today but has not been embraced by FirstNet
  • Smart cities—smart street lights with Wi-Fi, 5G small cells, sensors, and?
  • In-vehicle cameras—in operation today
  • On-person cameras—being rolled out quickly
  • In-vehicle mobile data terminals—in use, need to be converted to FirstNet
  • FirstNet user devices—here now, being deployed by departments across the United States
  • Cross-over devices, LMR radio plus LTE—Harris and a few others, more coming
  • Public safety applications—good start, many more coming as users determine their needs
  • PTT interoperability between broadband PTT vendors—not here yet, needs immediate attention
  • PTT talk-around over LTE—not here, difficult to accomplish, will it ever be done?
  • UAVs, drones, cameras, LMR and LTE radios—already here much more to come

In addition, 11 major metro areas are facing a deadline to move off the T-Band spectrum (470-512 MHz) they have been sharing with TV stations. They have no spectrum to move LMR systems to, not enough time or money to do so, and FirstNet won’t be ready to provide them with all the needed PTT services.  This will create a major crisis soon.

When I look at this list, and there are other items I am sure, I visualize two different types of public safety personnel. The first is incident commanders with a tablet their hands. How many of the above types of information do they need available, how many do they need displayed? If an incident commander suddenly has to keep track of incoming units (normal activity), the location of people inside a building (new task), the sensor alarms from one or more first responders (new tasks), video from multiple sources (new tasks), and more, how will they cope with all this new information being sent to them?

Do they really need all this to do their job? Is there a way for someone else to look at all the incoming information, sort it, and then quickly send incident commanders what they need? If the incident is large enough, perhaps there will be a Comm-L at the scene to assist. However, if the Comm-Ls have not been trained in the differences between LMR and LTE information capabilities, they won’t be able to handle all the incoming information either. How will they be able to assimilate all of this and aggregate it into what they need to do their job better? I keep reading and talking to people who rave about one of these new technologies and what it will do for public safety, others choose another technology and say they cannot wait for it to become a reality and how much it will be able to do for everyone.

Yet when you list all of these technologies and look at how many there are, each offering a way to help public safety perform better and more safely, it is difficult to argue with the fact that all of this technology will make a huge difference.

The second type of public safety personnel is made up of those in the field. If all this technology is unleashed at once and put out into the field, it will overwhelm field personnel as well as those back at the dispatch centers and Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs). In fact, the PSAPs will be trying to deal with their own technology advancements along with incoming text, pictures, and video, and their ability to send data out to responders in the field.

When it comes to applications that will become available, it may be fun to download and play with new and compelling applications, but will those in the field become proficient with what I believe will be the few they really need to do their jobs if they continue to be distracted by yet another application. One way to look at this issue is to look down at your own smartphone or device and count the number of applications you have on it, then honestly assess how many you feel at ease with and use day in and day out. Some you will use once in a while, which means you may have to refresh your memory every time, and there are probably some you downloaded or that came on your device that you have never opened and never will. The same will be true for public safety.

New Technologies

I am not trying to make a case that having all of these new technologies, devices, and applications is bad. I think many will become important parts of the overall communications tools available for public safety and how those in the field can be better informed without becoming overloaded. Before broadband came to public safety it came to the business community, and before that broadband slow-speed data was available to both businesses and public safety. What we learned and what we passed on to our consulting clients in the corporate world could, perhaps, serve as a valid model for public safety as well.

When we were first engaged by a company to discuss its fledgling use of slow-speed data services and later higher-speed but sub-broadband data speed, the IT and/or communications departments of these companies had many reservations about the value of bringing data to their companies. Many in the field thought they were too set in their ways to learn about data and the devices data ran on. Younger staff members were generally the most responsive to the addition of data. We developed a series of ways to show a company there was a financial reward attached to deploying data and helping its people be more productive.

The hard part was convincing those in charge not to simply purchase devices, load them up with applications, and ship them out into the field. Instead, we recommended they start slow, perhaps with one application that would make some part of the field force’s job easier or faster such as filling out an order form, tracking sales leads, and follow-ups, something simple that those in the field could relate to and find easier to input in a device than using pen and paper.

After the learning curve with one application we had them add another and yet another as each was mastered. Soon, the field force began asking for new applications that could help them be more productive. Over a short time, those in the field were hooked on their devices and applications and in interviews said they did not want to go back to the way they had been doing things. The applications chosen, by the way, did not require users to learn a different way to do something, they simply gave them new tools to do the same task more efficiently. It turns out that even personnel who thought they could not learn to use new methods and technologies became some of the most ardent supporters of the programs.

Public Safety

For the most part, the public safety community is entering the world of data and video with a lot of experience. They have been using smartphones for years, along with in-vehicle terminals, and moving around within an operating system and from application to application now comes naturally to them. However, this does not mean those in the field are ready to have tons of information in the form of data, pictures, and video thrown at them all at once. Operating a device on the FirstNet network is different than on a commercial network. Much of this has to do with the need to collaborate with others in the field, either within one’s own group or with another group such as fire or EMS.

Public safety law enforcement has been using in-vehicle video for years, and now on-person video is becoming commonplace. Even with previous and ongoing usage of cameras, there has to be some way to train people so when responding to a hold-up, for example, all the in-vehicle cameras are not set to streaming. Some public safety agencies and personnel have experienced PTT-over-LTE and PTT-over-LTE interconnected with LMR systems, but this is a small percentage of the public safety community.While FirstNet has access to all of AT&T’s spectrum plus band 14 LTE spectrum, there still must be some understanding about how many uplinks of video are needed from a scene. Today, each uplink uses a portion of the spectrum available and if an incident is in a confined area being serviced by only a few cell sectors, there are still times when bandwidth and data speeds, which are dependent on the amount of bandwidth available, could be impacted.

Everything Is the Same but Different

Everything about the public safety broadband network (FirstNet) is the same as over any other LTE network but at the same time LTE is different. Public safety has priority access and its own network ID, the network is more secure than others, it is encrypted end-to-end, and it is a nationwide network with local public safety control.

The network is built by AT&T as the FirstNet Network provided for the use of the public safety community. Public safety will be able to use the common identification system to sign onto databases that are restricted. It is a network with its own brain (Core) and it is for use by the public safety community only. There will be information sent over this network that would never be sent over a commercial network or over the Internet for privacy reasons, and the application store is and will continue to be full of different types of applications designed for public safety, and in many cases, by public safety.

Conclusion

If all the new technologies come at FirstNet at once, and if those in the field become overwhelmed, FirstNet will not succeed. However, if there is a way to determine what new technologies are needed when, and they can be introduced slowly and with training when needed, FirstNet will be the huge success we have all envisioned for many years.

Don’t ask incident commanders to track multiple drones, 10 firefighters inside a building, scores of incoming responders, and multiple EMS casualties while functioning as an incident commander. They will be too busy to focus on being a clearinghouse for information and should remain the person charged with coordinating efforts needed to control the situation.

For a number of years, I was telling the public safety community it needed to hire the folks in the TV van outside a stadium, the people who are accustomed to looking at multiple camera feeds and choosing the appropriate one at the right instant. Others in the van assist the people calling the play-by-play by feeding the broadcasters details, stats, information about a player, and which star is sitting in the stands, making the broadcasters look like heroes. The result is a team effort that gets the job done and from what I have seen with FirstNet and all the new technologies about to come online, we need to make sure there are trained teams ready to help incident commanders by providing them with only the information they need or ask for and not anything else.

FirstNet may make use of LTE and soon 5G, smart-city deployments, the Internet of Things, sensors, and more but even with all these similarities with a commercial network, it is a different communications ecosystem with different requirements, one of which is the need for true priority and pre-emption to ensure the right device has the right access to the network when it needs it, not when the network has an opening. My phone call or text message to a friend might seem like the most important communications I have sent that day but it is not nearly as important as the ones being sent and received over the FirstNet system every day!

Andrew M. Seybold
©2018 Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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