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)
Land mobile radio — commonly known among public safety personnel as LMR — has certainly come a long way in the past decade. I remember when I started my police career, my portable radio was big, heavy, and had very limited capability. Today’s first responders demand smaller, lighter, very agile, and ruggedized radio communications. That is what they have come to expect thanks to TV shows like “NCIS” and “24.” I have had the real honor to witness first hand the progress LMR has made in the past ten years. Today’s radios are very much like a hardened mini-computer with an antenna. They have much more channel capacity, allowing them to be programmed with the radio frequencies of many more public safety agencies which provides users the capability to achieve seamless interoperability without dispatcher or technical assistance.

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)
I remember very well the first MDT I used out in the field. It was big, had a flashing green screen and had very limited capability. The first model I used only allowed me access to tiny packets of data from limited criminal justice databases. But in the days of clogged radio channels, being able to check a vehicle registration or driver’s license on my own from the field was a big relief. Tremendous progress has been made with MDTs, which has facilitated very effective communications and critical data to be available when needed at the fingertips of public safety personnel. Simple accomplishments like car-to-car communication, all the way to robust communication like streaming video coming in and going out of the cockpits of our public safety vehicles as they travel on the highway.

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:

1) commercial wireless services, which are secure and robust but can be expensive with monthly fees for each MDT
2) a proprietary service which can be secure but not very robust

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
The reason that first mobile data terminal (“green screen”) I told you about earlier had such limited capability is because it shared the same frequency as our radio system. We then transitioned to a MDT that communicated on commercial wireless service known as Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD), which was a little more robust.

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:

• Provide broadband data services (such as text messaging, photos, diagrams, and streaming video) that is not readily available in existing public safety land mobile radio systems
• Provide a hardened public safety network with infrastructure built to withstand local, natural and manmade disasters, such as tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and terrorism — this would include strengthened towers and back up power with fuel supplies to withstand long term outages of public power sources
• Provide nationwide roaming and interoperability for local, state, and federal public safety agencies (police, fire and EMS) and other emergency services such as transportation, health care, and utilities
• Provide access to the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) similar to current commercial cellular services
• Provide push to talk capability with one -to-one and one-to-many radio transmissions that would provide a back-up to (but not replace) traditional public safety land mobile radio systems
• Provide access to satellite services in order to provide reliable nationwide communications where terrestrial services either do not exist or are temporarily out of service

As I paused to reflect on the past decade, I could not help but feel a sense of accomplishment when compared to the past. Our voice communications capability is much better today, but just like being a homeowner, there are always lots of projects to undertake. Our public safety users who should have the best, most advanced, and most robust capabilities too often must rely on systems that are inadequate for their needs today, much less the expanded responsibilities with which they will continue to be charged in the future.

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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