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Video, mapping go together for bigger communications bang

Accident or incident, you are a first responder on the scene. You need information. You need to know where your personnel are. You need to know what resources are available to you. Just like a weapon to outgun the bad guys, you want the best in communications you can get. In short, you want the biggest communications bang for your buck.

One solution that has been proven already in military applications seems poised on the threshold of public safety use. It is a communications platform that will make coordinating between responders better, clearer and easier. After all, you want to be connected whether you are on your radio or mobile phone. You want to be sharing vital data with other officers and with command centers. You want it to work with your own system. These are the needs of today in your job.

Collaborative voice, video and mapping tools are making things better for first responders who have to coordinate personnel and equipment and organize data at emergency scenes. This new mobile technology is useful to both law enforcement and the military. It is a combination of IP telephony coupled with collaborative GPS visualization tools for mobile handhelds, so team members can edit and view the same situation maps while at the same time be talking to each other.


NEC Sphere Communications Inc., based in Lincolnshire, IL, a subsidiary of NEC Corp., is collaborating with a strategic partner to deliver robust interactive unified communications capabilities as part of its service-oriented communication (SOC) collaborative infrastructure.

According to Todd Landry, the senior vice president at NEC Sphere, “When it comes to government departments, particularly first responders, there can be radically different communications methods with the use of radio frequencies and computer monitors. The need to coordinate better is a big goal.”

Landry, who joined Sphere in 2003 to lead product management, marketing and business development, indicated that every region of the United States has its own set of needs and requests for communications. What works in one area may not work in another. But more and more nowadays, agencies find themselves working together across police departments, fire and rescue, and governmental. What was needed was a core system that was flexible enough to fit any type of agency or governmental system.

“That is why we built the NEC UNIVERGE Sphericall platform system,” Landry said. “Not just public safety but even private corporations and companies are looking at flexibility as the key. They want a platform where developers can integrate. We worked with the U.S. Department of Defense on this, and our platform has JITC certification. This is important because, at any command and control center, you need to go through JITC certification. The ‘feds’ and hospitals are just some of the areas that would be JITC certified.”

The Joint Interoperability Test Command (JITC) conducts testing of national security systems and information technology systems hardware, software and components, according to its website. Services shown include developmental, conformance, interoperability, operational and validation testing.

How does the NEC UNIVERGE Sphericall platform get used? Landry responded: “Our strategic partner takes NEC Sphere’s communications software and puts it within other platforms, such as the ability to gather GPS for emergency vehicles used by first responders. In this example, police vehicles or rescue units can be linked for a group of responders. Command Center can see anybody and see them on a map of the area.”

“We have a demo that will show you a 3D view of an area,” Landry elaborated. “Data that is marked on that map can be shared with all viewers in the system, possibly used to coordinate where to meet or where to evacuate. The UNIVERGE Sphericall platform’s openness allows all the technology to happen. The Command Center and those approved to access the technology can manipulate the map for use by responders. In this way, UNIVERGE Sphericall connects people together whether they are on a radio or a mobile phone.”

Geospatial Capabilities

A big part of the solution is due to NEC Sphere’s open communications engine, which provides a set of unified communications functions via easy Web services integration. NEC’s strategic partner found this approach fit perfectly with its services-oriented architecture platform in its geospatial products. The communications functions allow for instant communication and collaboration without the complexities of finding radio channels.

This platform is a commercial off-the-shelf, Web-centric tool suite that provides 2D, 3D and 4D views of geographic areas of interest to military, security, safety and disaster management officials. The geospatial tool suite provides a unique SOA-based, mission-oriented framework for allowing users and/or groups of users to compose their own specific mission- or user-defined operational picture (MDOP or UDOP) for subsequent collaboration and mission execution. Geospatial collaboration has become one of the hottest areas for government IT organizations seeking to provide a more complete emergency response solution using this new technology.

NEC Sphere’s software is designed as a business application that fits naturally into SOA environments. Its flexibility and openness allows solution integrators to easily create applications that are tailored to customers’ needs. When combined with a collaborative framework, the solution can deliver shared VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) through IP phones or soft phones, instant messaging, and on-demand conferencing to different users across multiple domains. The result is rich collaboration among first responders and other emergency personnel, which helps to assure emergency resources are deployed efficiently.

Landry said, “Our core platform is being used in the U.S. military. The U.S. Army Reserve is using it in all communications. It is even being used in Afghanistan, transported in hardened boxes in armored vehicles for communications purposes.” With a geospatial application and NEC Sphere integration, users at various echelons can view and annotate geospatial content of their interest while maintaining voice communication among collaborating communities of interest.

Where else would this platform be useful? Landry indicated that it would be part of larger municipalities through strategic partnerships, and it could be useful for first responders in areas such as the National Guard and also fire and spill control situations. He went on to say that FEMA could be a prime user. As an example, he mentioned that during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, even the 9-1-1 center was wiped out, and the ability to mobilize became non-existent. There was no coordination between the National Guard and the Coast Guard. Using the UNIVERGE Sphericall hardened system, pre-configured, the phone calls could have been rerouted to active terminals during the disaster.

“Our core platforms, with JITC certification, have been at market for a few years, mostly in the military bases and hospitals such as Walter Reed,” Landry said. “Every government organization that is looking at communications should consider our platform. It is secure, saves time and money, and addresses better public safety.”

In an open platform where flexibility is key, this collaborative system provides the audio, video and mapping solutions for better coordination between agencies, officers and their command centers. Its use in military situations seems to be a glimpse of things to come as first responders look to find new and better ways to improve communications. If this GPS mapping, voice and video continues to expand in popularity, it will no doubt signal the beginning of a new era in public safety. It will provide a bigger communications bang for the buck, and now, that bang will be heard and seen by all your fellow first responders using the system.

Tim Burke is a freelance writer based outside of Chicago.

Published in Public Safety IT, Jul/Aug 2009

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