October 17, 2008

getting real about connecting public safety

It is time to get real about the communications needs of the men and women who assure the public’s safety. Our challenges have expanded, but our vision has not. We continue to fixate on 20th century technology as the solution to 21st century threats.


Two events in the last 60 days have put the spotlight on the dangerously limited manner in which emergency communications needs are currently considered. In August the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) conducted a mock bio-terrorism attack in San Diego, simulating the results of Anthrax being smuggled across the Mexican border. More than 70 local, state, and federal agencies and institutions were involved. Then last month the FCC held a seminar on communications during a pandemic. As Commissioner Robert McDowell pointed out, the challenge in such a widespread crisis is not just how to manage the incident itself, but also how to maintain critical operations throughout society and the economy.

Refining Definitions

Both these exercises demonstrated how the definition of “public safety” must extend far beyond the current dominant focus on police and fire “first responders.” Whether it is a pandemic, or terrorist attack, or natural disaster (or car crash), the organizations involved in keeping the public safe include not only people with guns and hoses, but also 911, public health, government officials at all levels, Red Cross, schools, hospitals, National Guard, utilities, even road repair crews. The fact that 70 different institutions were involved in the San Diego drill demonstrates just how far public safety communications extends beyond police and fire. In no way do I denigrate the importance of police and fire services and the sacrifices of their men and women, but we owe them and all the others who contribute to our safety better tools, especially tools that will allow them to communicate with each other. And “communications” needs to include all information, not just the traditional voice communications of push-to-talk radios.

Because of the uniqueness of their needs it was always believed that police and fire needed a unique communications system: dedicated push-to-talk devices on a dedicated network. After the September 11 tragedy when police and fire radios couldn’t talk to each other, Congress appropriated billions of dollars in “interoperability grants” to states and localities. Almost all this money went only for one thing: it bought more equipment (including more limited-use radios) for unique first responder networks. So long as the concept of “unique” is controlling public safety, it will be constrained because multiple emergency service providers will be cut out. The insistence on “unique” networks also means there will never be enough money to connect all those who need to be connected. The answer isn’t to spend the $50 billion-plus proponents estimate is needed to finish this approach for first responders; that will just make the unique silos bigger. The need is to connect all the possible emergency service providers regardless of what wired and wireless networks they may use.

Another result of demanding unique networks is that emergency communications will never have state-of-the-art technology with the latest capabilities. When the scope and scale of innovation is driven by 266 million U.S. wireless subscribers (3.5 billion worldwide), unique devices and networks used by only a couple million people will always be several generations behind in capabilities.

Enter IP

The 21st century technology that overcomes both the limited reach of current public-safety communications and the technology lag is IP (Internet Protocol) technology. The IP revolution that has reshaped the military’s and the private sector’s communications has yet to be embraced by the first responder community. When network activities are converted into IP then different networks, whether for the police, or hospitals or road crews, can be bridged for seamless connectivity. The Army does this today in Iraq, why can’t we do it here at home as well?

The beauty of IP is that it reorients the focus from the network per se to what the technologists call the “applications layer,” i.e., what is done on the network. Indeed, all the focus on a new wireless broadband public-safety network misses that it is one more unique network with which all the legacy systems will have to be interoperable. If instead we focus on a common IP language for the applications, rather than the current fixation on a common network, we could enable emergency connectivity and information across all possible organizations, and at much lower cost — and we could give first responders access to information from a plethora of sources. The sooner decision makers at all levels involved with the safety of the public focus on the applications layer instead of the network layer, the safer we will all be.

It is important that we keep our eye on the prize: connecting all institutions that have a role in the public’s safety. Yes, it is police and fire, but public safety is also schools and seniors, EMS, poison control, Coast Guard, mass transit, hospitals and utilities. The technology is readily available today to revolutionize the public’s safety by becoming up-to-date in emergency communications. Those who have always been focused on building and deploying new networks must realize that IP makes it possible for them to become applications-expansive and thus do more and protect more.