A decade of challenges and changes in communications
It’s hard to believe we are about to bring 2009 to a close. Where did the year go? It seems like just yesterday I was getting ready to welcome 2009 with a huge celebration our City hosts called First Night Alexandria. In a nation where progress is measured by the minute, we have come a long way in the last decade, breaking down many barriers and achieving tremendous progress. But we still have many gaps to overcome.
The public safety community still is far behind commercial users in terms of communications functionality. While we have achieved much better interoperability between different disciplines and across jurisdictional boundaries, lack of governance, standards, and training continue to be our biggest gaps. It is not for lack of technology! For almost every situation, there is a technical solution out there ready to help us communicate effectively and efficiently. Those of us in the communications trenches have a common saying: “The remaining gaps are ten percent technical, ninety percent human.”
Let’s take a moment to reflect on the past decade of challenges and changes made in land mobile radio, mobile data terminals, governance, standards, and training.
Land Mobile Radio (LMR)
Earlier I mentioned governance, standards, and training. It is important to remember that lots of this technology capability is not possible without having sound governance, human standards, and training in place. What I mean by that is, even today, I am aware of horror stories such as law enforcement agencies that refuse to allow others to communicate with them on their radio system because of a lack of trust and governance. Lack of standardized radio language — the way we talk on the radio — is one of the most common reasons I hear some agencies resist others coming on to their radio system to communicate in a mission critical environment.
There are first responders who only know how to turn their radio on and off, how to push-to-talk, and very limited capability because their agency has never given them any formal training on the full functionality of their radio. Most agencies only offer this training immediately after completing the academy and never revisit it again, despite constant upgrades in LMR.
Secure communications — commonly known as encryption — is also starting to become very common. Ten years ago, one could go to a local electronics store, purchase a scanner and listen to almost any public safety agencies radio system. Today, most radios have the capability to transmit in a secure mode that renders most scanners useless. In addition, day-to-day communication throughout the public safety community is more commonly being conducted via mobile data terminals (MDT’s), making it seem as if we are hardly using our radios (more on MDT’s later).
The most significant development recently released for mission critical communications are multi-band radios. For years, LMR had been manufactured by commercial vendors in only one of four primary bands: VHF Low Band, VHF High Band, UHF Low Band, and 800 MHz. This was one of the largest impediments to achieving interoperable communications. And while multi-band radios have really allowed us to talk and work with our neighbors on disparate radio frequencies, proprietary standards closely guarded by radio manufacturers sometimes prohibit interoperable communications, despite an elusive public safety radio standard (APCO P25) that has been around since October 1989.
In addition, rebanding and narrowbanding have continued to plague us this decade. At the beginning of this decade, public safety personnel began noticing significant interference on the radios being caused by the walkie-talkie feature of Nextel telephones. The interference was being caused because many of Nextel’s (now part of Sprint) frequencies were right next to those designated for public safety radio systems. What seemed like an obvious solution, to create distance between commercial and public safety radio frequencies, would you believe there are pockets of the country where this issue continues? Today, after years of planning, estimating, and negotiating, cost is the primary culprit getting in the way of this progress.
Most current land mobile radio systems use 25 kHz-wide channels (this is the limit of my technical capability). The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has mandated that all state and local public safety radio users using 25 kHz radio systems migrate to narrowband 12.5 kHz channels by January 1, 2013. In a nutshell, for those who have not met this mandate yet this typically means replacing their entire radio system. Land mobile radio systems are quite possibly the second greatest expense a municipality makes next to real estate and capital improvements. This simple yet very expensive mandate will contribute significantly to our communications capability by allowing additional channels to exist within the same spectrum space. Despite these gaps, I truly look forward to technology that promises to make communications more secure and efficient. Technology such as over the air reprogramming and encryption and personnel tracking using GPS functionality embedded in LMR.
Mobile Data Terminals (MDTs)
Ten years ago, lots of the radio chatter on almost any agency’s LMR system was mundane communication — what’s your location, where do you want to meet for lunch, or call the station. In my early years on the job, I recall being involved in a vehicle pursuit that ended after I caught the guy after a brief foot pursuit. During both pursuits, I was unable to get on the radio to notify surrounding officers and/or the dispatcher because of all our radio volume. Today, our radio is wide open with very little chatter because it has all moved over to the MDTs. Because MDTs allow you to transmit large packets of data and files, virtual rollcall is now possible for personnel not able to make a briefing, complete with pictures and rosters.
Details of a call for service and mapping are two critical components that most MDTs offer. Before they came along, I remember many times writing the details of the call on the palm of my hand with my ballpoint pen and unfurling a huge map to help me get there. Most first responders with MDTs today can easily see all of the details to the call that they are responding to, to include call history at any location. This, coupled with turn-by-turn navigation has made us much safer and efficient.
Full functionality, identical to those at any desktop computer is what some MDTs offer today. One of the biggest barriers remaining today in the MDT environment is broadband connectivity. Those agencies that have MDTs, for the most part, rely on two sources of broadband connectivity:
Most proprietary networks only work within the geographic limits of the municipality and do little to provide connectivity in neighboring jurisdictions during a mutual aid scenario. Both of these solutions typically work on Third Generation (3G) and Fourth Generation (4G) technologies.
Mobile Broadband for Public Safety
As a result of the implementation of digital television, tremendous broadband spectrum was made available to public safety after Congress directed the FCC to do so in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. In recent years, the FCC, in collaboration with public safety agencies and private public safety associations, has been working tirelessly to deploy this spectrum exclusively for our use.
At the end of the day, the ideal broadband wireless service for public safety would have to:
I am excited to be a part of nationwide standards that will help us close the human gaps I mentioned earlier. In order to improve governance and cooperation, we need to have a universal radio language that will allow us to talk seamlessly regardless of discipline or location.
Without a fundamental change in the way we approach emergency responder communications, no technology in the world will help us close some of these remaining gaps. We cannot lose sight of the tremendous value training brings to any organization. During these winter months is an excellent opportunity to conduct training on mundane tactics that most of us take for granted, such as a refresher of the full functionality of the LMR. If your agency is still not using MDTs, the train has left the station. They provide a wealth of information to first responders, not only to make them safer, but to remove more criminals off the street, in essence making the pubic safer.
An often under-represented benefit of MDTs is personnel efficiency. When you take into consideration all the trips law enforcement personnel no longer need to make because they can do it all from the cockpit of their car, you will quickly ask yourself “How did we ever do it without MDTs?” But in order for MDTs to work effectively, we need a network that will be available anytime, anywhere, resilient, interoperable and secure. While LMR communication is here to stay and remains the most vital part of emergency response, it needs to be supported by MDTs and other devices. Government at all levels — the public safety community and communications providers — need to continue working together in order to pave a path forward for the development of a robust and interoperable mobile broadband network for America's first responders, hospitals, and transportation officials.
I truly look forward to another year, serving and contributing to the solutions and tactics yet to come.
Happy New Year everybody!
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