The future of public safety communications

High-speed data connectivity is becoming more crucial on the front line, with our emergency services organisations increasing looking for video and real-time data access capabilities on the field.

Not only does high-speed data connectivity seem like a necessity among consumers and in enterprise, but it’s becoming more prevalent and more crucial on the front line within the public safety industry.

A recent study of more than 850 public safety professionals in the United States has revealed some startling insights into the rapid dependence on high-speed data communications in the field.

The 2013 Public Safety Industry Study, conducted annually by Motorola Solutions, shows a sharp increase in the number of respondents claiming the use of high-speed data access is becoming critical to their line of work. According to respondents, ‘(high-speed data) enables first responders to make more informed decisions to better serve the public and protect lives’.

While the same survey conducted in 2012 documented the emerging emphasis on data communications in public safety, the new study is notable for showing how quickly the trend of providing mobile broadband access in the field is escalating. Responses revealed that in the last year, the number of agencies acknowledging the importance of high-speed data to their future operations grew by more than 30 per cent.   

Australia’s public safety industry, while notably smaller than that of the US, has seen many parallels in the use of communications technology, with several local authorities and agencies among the world’s first to adopt next-generation technology such as digital radio and in-car computer systems.

In 2011, for example, the Western Australian government invested $40 million in the statewide extension of a digital communications network for emergency services organisations (ESO) – initially deployed in the Perth metropolitan area in 2005. Among other benefits, the network supports broadband access delivery in certain metropolitan areas, with more remote areas able to add this capability as a separate layer atop the digital network.

The study also reveals that video is fast becoming one of the most effective sources of information for public safety operations.

Almost 58 per cent of respondents indicated that their agencies use video solutions in some combination of fixed, mobile and in-vehicle video applications. The use of real-time video is also on the radar of many agencies. Although only about seven per cent of respondents indicated they can currently send live video from in-vehicle camera systems, almost 30 per cent said that they would definitely or probably implement streaming video in the next three years.

Video is just one reason high-speed data communications is in the spotlight today, and has become ever-present through high-profile public safety incidents like the Boston bombings in the US. Close to half of respondents said that their first responders use a mobile or smartphone on the job, whether the first responder’s own personal phone or a unit issued by the department.

Indeed, the increased use of personal mobile and smartphone devices – many of which include video recording and playback capabilities – makes video a logical extension to a public safety officers’ toolkit, and the ability to quickly share video content with other responders and in command offices across state or country is critical to its effectiveness.

Future priorities

When asked to predict the most urgent future needs for their public safety agencies, 43 per cent of respondents listed interoperable communications and high-speed data access; another 18 per cent would rely on mobile data communications as often as voice communications. 

Respondents also indicated a strong interest in providing real-time data access in the field. More than 62 per cent acknowledge – and are preparing for – a future in which delivering real-time voice, data and video access to first responders, wherever they are, is mission critical.   

This degree of reliance on real-time high-speed communications will conceivably require saturation coverage of high-speed next-generation radio and broadband networks, at least across metro areas.

In December, Western Australia – already advanced in its use of new technology in the public safety arena – played host to the first live demonstration of a working 4G LTE network dedicated to public safety use (not unlike the FirstNet national public safety broadband network currently in development in the US).

Interestingly, where voice has always been king in public safety – and consequently the use of two-way radio dominated less reliable 3G mobile handsets in the field – data is becoming as important, if not more so, than voice for next-generation public safety communications. After all, on a digital network, voice is just one of many simultaneous data feeds, albeit of the highest priority.  

In the survey, almost 45 per cent of respondents believe that getting data messages is equal in priority to getting voice messages. And more than 90 per cent believe that data messages are important. First responder expectations are also high. Only 12 per cent of respondents said that their first responders do not expect data access to be available during an incident.

For most first responders, enhanced situational awareness through immediate access to information – live streaming video of incident scenes, current building schematics, location histories, criminal records and more – is key to increasing public safety efficiency, effectiveness and above all, safety.

Roadblocks to progress

When considering challenges to achieving their public safety communications vision, almost 70 per cent of survey respondents identified budget as their primary challenge, while 11 per cent noted lack of resources and technical support. Another 10 per cent of survey participants identified building consensus with surrounding agencies as a challenge.

The use of data communications continues to trend at a rapidly increasing pace, underscoring the mission-critical importance of real-time data communications for first responders in the field.

In Australia, the states are responsible for setting and progressing their own public safety policies, and even through many have set visionary benchmarks that are studied and adopted as best-practice examples across the world, some challenges remain.

Cyber attacks are on the rise, and public safety agencies are increasingly coming under attack by hackers whose intentions are not just to steal information, but also to disrupt or even totally shut down public safety networks.  

The BYOD (bring your own device) phenomenon – made popular by the proliferation of personal ‘smart’ devices like phones and tablets – can exacerbate the situation by exposing government systems to private system vulnerabilities. As a consequence, almost half of the survey respondents suggest they are at least somewhat likely to add additional security in the next year.

The 2013 Motorola Public Safety Industry Study establishes that there are both significant opportunities to take advantage of and significant communications issues that must be addressed.

The need to provide first responders with high-speed data and voice communications in the field is seen as paramount. The survey also notes the increasing importance of multimedia, including the streaming of live video to and from the field and the ability of emergency call centres to accept text messages, photographs and video.

Australian ESOs have in the past demonstrated a willingness to adopt and deploy technology on the leading edge. Whether or not this trend continues in light of the highly competitive and politically charged broadband arena in the country remains to be seen.

Paul Thompson is the general manager, Government and Public Safety, Motorola Solutions ANZ

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