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The world of tomorrow today

With wireless-equipped laptops, cell phones, instant messaging, social networking sites, Short Messaging Service (SMS), and Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS)—all operating on standards-based nationwide networks—they can interact in ways that rival, and even exceed, the capabilities of the people who work to keep them safe. While this remains an uneasy reality, it is rapidly changing; and as the youth of today become the public safety professionals of tomorrow, the workforce they enter will undergo fundamental changes in the years ahead.

For police, fire, and emergency service professionals, effective communications enable their ability to contribute. The issue of pervasive connectivity is one of the biggest challenges these officials need to address if they are going to be able to perform their jobs as well as they have historically. Today, for example, many first responders are not as mobile at work as they are in their personal lives. They are better equipped to collaborate and communicate after hours than when they are on call. Simply put, they need better and more advanced tools.

Underlying the need for specific devices or resources, however, is the need to move from “siloed,” discreet networks to a national network. Soon the Federal Communication Commission will open the 700 MHz spectrum, part of which will be allocated for public safety, which is moving toward a converged IP-based broadband infrastructure. As a result, in four key areas of communications—voice, video, data, and mobility—existing systems will need to adapt to emerging technologies and business models.

The implications of this shift will be significant. Over the next five to 10 years, the technology used in public safety will open up doors to information sharing and collaboration that will accelerate communication and the decision-making process in mission-critical situations. The technology that exists, and that will exist, will allow safety professionals to do their jobs in ways far better, more efficient, and cost-effective than ever before.

To understand what this means, you need to look only to the television show “24.” The scenarios are fiction, but the communications technology used in the show is already a reality. Public safety and justice organizations just need to catch up, and as they do, their worlds will change and improve in dramatic ways. Here are four scenarios that will likely be realized in the coming years:

Collaborating from the Hip (Voice)

In the near future, a police dispatcher will receive a call from a concerned citizen about suspicious activity near a local business. The citizen, using his phone, will take a picture and video of a person loitering next to the business. Both will be transmitted with the phonecall to the police. The dispatcher immediately will make a call to a beat officer who is on foot patrol in the area. The officer will reach for a multi-functioning device on his hip that has a radio component, such as an IP-phone, a cell phone, or a ruggedized handheld such as an Intermec CN3. The officer will be reached not only by pushing a button to talk, but by intra-office dialing (like a four-digit number) as the multi-band device will be able to operate with radio frequencies and Wi-Fi alike. The officer will talk with the dispatcher, call the concerned citizen back for more information, and review the picture and video. Suddenly, voice communication changes from being a matter of interoperability to one of true collaboration for increased effectiveness.

What will allow this collaboration is fixed mobile convergence (FMC), the way to connect a mobile phone to fixed-line infrastructure. This will enable emergency responders to provide services regardless of their location and technology. A single device will have the capability to operate anywhere and on any platform. Communication will no longer be reliant on a device or end point, but rather it will be a connection to a resource.

From a continuity of operations standpoint, this is significant. In a disaster situation, such as a hurricane or tornado, evolved voice capabilities will allow for emergency communications to take place continuously, as they will not be restricted by damaged or disabled fixed infrastructure—downed power lines, destroyed buildings, etc. Emergency contacts will remain the same, but the people and resources behind them will be mobile to accommodate the surroundings. So no matter the situation, whether it is a natural disaster or an emergency on the street, enhanced voice applications and capabilities will move communications from silos to a seamless process, removing all barriers to participation.

With the capability to scale and expand, voice will be unified with data, video, and other rich content without requiring a separate network for each. Most important, as budgets tighten, having this unified network will save money because new systems will not be needed for each application.

So when a police office reaches to respond to a call, it will no longer be from just a radio. It will be from a device that is a resource with the capabilities to receive real-time alerts and updates, show video and access data. Empowered by information, the officer will be able to better and more safely investigate the suspicious activity and perform his job.

Video is Worth 10,000 Words (Video)

In emergency medicine, every minute is critical. With enhanced video capabilities, first responders—paramedics and EMTs—will be able to improve the use of every second of the “Golden Hour,” the time between when they arrive on the scene and when the patient finally reaches a doctor. Video introduces a dynamic and rich aspect to critical decision making that greatly enhances interactions between public safety and justice officials, regardless of location.

Instead of describing a wound verbally, first responders will be able to use high-quality video to stream back images to an emergency room doctor who will be treating the patient when he arrives at the hospital. In these situations where physicians have to make subjective decisions rapidly, video will give them extra time and a better understanding of what to expect—enabling them to make a more accurate diagnosis to provide quicker treatment. Combined with data systems, new and more detailed patient-tracking systems will provide increased effectiveness during mass casualty situations.

Video, in fact, will be seen in several capacities in the public safety environment, including fixed video or video surveillance. IP network-centric video surveillance software and hardware supports video transmission, monitoring, recording and management. This will enable faster incident response, investigation and resolution. Coupled with sensor integration, video will be a critical tool in the decision-making loop.

Mobile or “in-vehicle” video is also becoming increasingly important. The ability to interact while on the go is imperative for public safety officials to do their jobs in the most efficient manner possible. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), for example, has recently worked to design and deploy the Mobile Security Network (MSN). Wireless and mobile routers were installed in buses, police cars and CTA supervisor vehicles. These routers create ad hoc networks when two vehicles come into range of each other. Mobile routers were also installed at several rail stations, which create hotspots for MSN-equipped vehicles.

When a police cruiser or CTA vehicle pulls into a train station, the on-board wireless and mobile router creates a tunnel that connects to the routers at CTA headquarters and the CTA control center. On the buses and within train stations, the mobile routers connect to DVRs (digital video recorders). Client software that runs on ruggedized laptops was installed in police and CTA vehicles. This client software lets users log in to the DVRs to see real-time video feeds and switch camera views. The routers are capable of using both the licensed public safety band and the unlicensed frequency commonly used for wireless LANs. The use of video helps ensure that the transit system in one of the country’s largest cities is secure.

Whether fixed or mobile, collaboration and integration of video will happen not only at a tactical level, but also on the high end with rich video conferencing equipment. The use of video applications will also dramatically change training and simulation capabilities. It will increase the number of people who can participate without being tied to a single, fixed infrastructure, as well as save costs. Training video and collaborative training efforts allow officers and first responders from all over the country to have the same training, creating a more unified force.

Igniting a Blaze of Knowledge (Data)

A building in the warehouse district of a major metropolitan area is ablaze, and no one knows what’s inside or, just as important, what is contained within adjacent buildings. Soon, with access to a converged network, firefighters will be able to have access to that type of information, as well as a lot more.

As a firefighter is headed to the warehouse, he will be able to access blueprints, wind and weather information or warnings about potentially dangerous chemicals, and will get real-time information and intelligence on possible terrorist activity. This information will be obtained on the go from computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems that seamlessly share information and from a fusion center, which is an all-hazards analysis center. Additional information will come from a variety of sensors that will encircle cities. The ability to detect chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosive threats will add real-time content to an evolving threat scenario.

The concept of a fusion center is to create a collaborative effort between two or more government agencies to provide resources, expertise and information to a center with the goal of maximizing their ability to detect, prevent, investigate and respond to criminal and terrorist activity. It allows the secure sharing of information and collaboration across all domains, whether it’s public safety, criminal justice, or health and human services. The use of NIEM—the National Information Exchange Model—is helping to break down barriers in information and data sharing. With this combined information from video cameras, sensors, and the private and public sectors, professionals can determine very quickly what type of threat exists—whether against transportation, buildings, roadways, bridges, tunnels, etc.

Today, as it has been for the last century, information is largely held in silos. People with information have limited means to share it with others who would benefit from it. This is changing, and it will fundamentally impact how we respond to a variety of situations, from terrorism to natural disasters. In the future when there is an incident in which many organizations have to work together, they will have the ability to quickly and effectively share data, in all forms, in a secure and collaborative manner.

The On-the-Go Advantage (Mobility)

Mobility is the underlying aspect for everyone. In the future, the police officer, the firefighter, and the paramedic will never have to think about whether they are moving from a fixed to a mobile network. Mobility is about providing the same capabilities that exist in a fixed location to someone on the move and creating the ability to expand the enterprise in a seamless fashion. Important to note is that mobility of the future is about much more than establishing an outdoor wireless network.

So the true success of mobility in years to come will be that professionals forget they are using mobile-based technology; it will be second nature to them in the course of their activities. Public safety officials will have the same access to information whether they are sitting in their chair behind a terminal or in the field on a ruggedized laptop. No longer will public safety professionals be at a disadvantage because they are mobile. Once people who were mobile were hindered, but now they are at an exceeding advantage. They have the benefit of being on the scene while also being continuously connected to the information they need to effectively perform their jobs, regardless of the location of that same information.

With the evolution of networks and the need for applications to be flexible and collaborative, having unified wireless and mobile technologies enable more effective decision making for first responders. Whether it’s the firefighter needing instant information about a hazardous material or the patrol officer on the scene needing positive suspect identification, the ability to instantly access voice, video, and data via an advanced mobile network represents a capability that will transform their effectiveness in serving communities.

The 2006 Municipal Wireless State of the Market Report

states that public sector mobility is growing about 100% annually. Global spending in the municipal market is projected to grow from $802 million in 2005 to $8.6 billion in 2010. The report also notes that “networks are becoming more multifunctional, designed to achieve more goals, and act as vessels for more transformative applications” with a strong emphasis on public safety, code enforcement, and public works. In the future, mobility will likely not even be referred to as mobility; it will just be what is.

A Journey, Not a Destination

For these scenarios to be realized fully, a good deal of work needs to be accomplished across the board. For those agencies that have not already, an understanding of the current communications landscape needs to be obtained. Agencies should perform thorough evaluations of their current situation by taking inventory of equipment to determine what is needed. As they work with their technology partners to address needs, they should then take a holistic view of their operations and prioritize what is most critical with an eye to scalable, flexible solutions that can evolve as they do. Since every agency is going to be at a different stage of maturity and will have different challenges with communications, funding and technology, it is most important for all parties to continuously seek information and become educated on realistic options. Key stakeholders should have open and honest conversations with each other and with their technology partners to identify the solutions that work best for them. Then, public safety and government officials should govern their decisions with the understanding that, when it comes to technology, this is a continuous evolution. Technology and innovation are more about appreciating the journey than achieving a final destination. Proper planning and education ensures that the next step in the journey is always within reach.

A Vision of the Future

So what does the future look like? Simply, it’s going to be multiple standards-based devices accessing multiple standards-based networks, delivering information and collaboration in different ways, but in a completely seamless fashion. A national broadband public safety network will change how first responders collaborate and share information of all types. The increased use of sensors, license plate recognition systems, biometrics, and other yet-to-be developed technologies will define the need for converged systems and technologies.

As the public safety community works to achieve communications solutions to ensure it will be able to serve the future needs of citizens, agencies will also be investing in their own future—by attracting talented and dedicated professionals. The youth of today will be drawn to employers offering the latest technology in communication and collaboration.

Once upon a time, the government was the only entity that could afford the latest technology. It drew in the best and brightest people. Times have changed, however, and now the government is striving to keep up with the innovation displayed by the private sector. Fortunately, standards-based technology is leveling the playing field and providing more value for the money being spent. By ensuring the right communications tools are in place, the public safety community will also be ensuring that the right people are using them. And that’s a future worth investing in.

Morgan Wright is the global industry solutions manager for public safety and homeland security, Cisco Systems. He can be reached at

Published in Public Safety IT, Mar/Apr 2008

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