Getting with the Times

     If a major incident erupted in your community, such as a school shooting, bomb threat, detonated bomb, collapsed building or natural disaster, how prepared will public safety resources be? Can they deploy and communicate with each other via a network utilizing voice, data and video for maximum response?

     The answer may well be one of mixed reviews as some cities already have invested in this very technology to create a precise, coordinated response by first responders, while other cities remain in limbo. At stake is the need to contain the incident at hand and protect the victims and all first responders. Creating an interoperable public safety network is a financial investment that, cities will find, pays big dividends.

     The movement to modernize old public safety networks or build new ones is even a priority of this country's new Administration. As part of his ambitious agenda for advancing technology in the United States, President Obama states in his "Blueprint for Change - Obama and Biden's Plan for America" that he wants to implement policies which "spur the deployment of new technologies to promote interoperability, broadband access and more effective communications among first responders and emergency response systems."

     The Public Safety Spectrum Trust has called on the Obama Administration to allocate $15 billion from its new stimulus package to create a nationwide, wireless broadband public safety network. The Washington, D.C.-based organization is the non-profit corporation the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chose as the licensee of broadband spectrum designated for the network.

Outdated technology a deterrent

     Until now, most cities have battled limited public safety response to both small and large incidents largely because of outdated technology, such as two-way radio (with varying frequencies among responders, therefore diluting communications), absent wireless networks, lack of mobile computer terminals in vehicles, etc.

     Even video streaming, gradually being adopted to record incidents, can be hampered since images usually cannot be shared simultaneously with several parties who could benefit from viewing them. This limitation stems from spotty quality and the speed of image transmission.

Need for real-time video

     In recent years, technology has made huge strides to address the growing need for beefed up interoperable systems in communities and regions nationwide.

     While many platforms offer impressive combined voice and data capabilities, it is video that should prove to be the prime mover in this entire technology conversion. In fact, adding video to the same systems comprising audio and data capabilities can improve communications while rendering greater collaborative decision making and quicker response times. Video can help raise trust between different agencies since personnel can see each others' faces through videoconferencing, for example. And combining video surveillance systems, videoconferencing, audio and data will lead to a more streamlined workflow and improve public safety efficiencies.

     One player bringing real-time video to public safety networks is Santa Clara, California-based Bada Networks. This company provides video collaboration solutions to public safety networks working with integrators. Bada's Virtual Command Center function routes and processes thousands of real-time video streams interactively alongside voice and data and works with an Internet Protocol (IP) network, whether wireless or wireline based. Bada Networks cites three key components that underscore its technology:

  1. Scalable architecture for video, audio and data to allow gradual network expansion. This includes future-proof video/audio processing built into the network infrastructure.
  2. Interoperability with legacy systems and the ability to configure for future systems. This allows convergence of several systems onto a single network infrastructure, greatly saving the cost of separate systems.
  3. Bandwidth management to optimize video and video quality while guaranteeing other mission-critical services on the network can deliver data without being squeezed out by video's increased bandwidth requirements.
'Visual networking'

     According to Anson Chen, CEO of Bada Networks, the company deploys equipment and solutions with "video collaboration" as the focal point, and states the upshot of this technology will be the realization of "visual networking." "This technology will allow anyone who needs to talk instantly, see and share content at the same time, regardless of whether it involves a few people or thousands," he says.

     Bada Networks' technology pushes received live video to others via its Video Dispatch technology and offers a managed service layer for real-time video.

     "Such solutions must provide the missing network overlay to realize the applications these networks have been promising," Chen asserts. "With a multitude of traffic over these networks, there is no guarantee of video and audio quality without video and audio bandwidth management and congestion control, such as that delivered by Bada."

     Bada's largest deployment to date is for an overseas "Safe City" project, where the company's infrastructure connects to 2,000 video surveillance live and recorded cameras and up to 3,000 videoconferencing endpoints. This allows all levels of government hierarchies to share and coordinate incidents seen on the video surveillance feeds, or to instantly videoconference with each other. "The infrastructure can be easily expanded to larger capacities or new features can be added," Chen states.

     Jim Sarallo, who until two years ago was senior vice-president and general manager of Motorola Inc.'s government and enterprise solutions business, is an avid proponent of video's role in interoperability networks. He and Chen, who also worked at Motorola before founding Bada Networks, agree video will have a huge impact on future interoperable systems.

Flexibility required

     The construction of public safety networks may differ in design from one to another, making the need for flexible solutions. Plenty of solutions from a variety of vendors achieve different levels of interoperability.

     Mendocino County, California, for example, has launched an advanced public safety network that will enhance network interoperability and emergency response with strengthened communication across multiple agencies within the county.

     Alcatel-Lucent of Murray Hill, New Jersey, installed a mobile microwave backhaul network to handle the county's different communications systems. Built on an IP platform, the network provides interoperability for all users.

     "It (the network) also lays the groundwork for eventually delivering capabilities such as video and broadband communications to first responders and public safety," says John Mahrino, vice-president of Americas Region Public Affairs for Alcatel-Lucent.

     The new public safety network handles all of Mendocino County's secure high-speed transmission needs: mobile data terminals, secure videoconferencing, fingerprint identification, building security applications, and other sources of digital traffic. "We allow Mendocino County to leverage technology that's very economical," stresses Mahrino, "but without creating a situation where they have to rip out and replace what (equipment) they've got."

     Alcatel-Lucent used standards for the county's modernized network created by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which publishes standards for the Internet. "The big benefit for Mendocino County's network is that it's all IP," Mahrino added. "It allows the county to interoperate with its legacy equipment, and add applications that can work across many agencies and jurisdictions. The cost of upgrading this network will be very economical."

WiMAX speeds dispatch

     Another public safety network option some municipalities are adopting is the standards initiative called "worldwide interoperability for microwave access" or WiMAX, a 4G high-speed wireless network that uses IP as the core communication standard.

     The city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, chose Clearwire Corporation of Las Vegas, Nevada, to build a region-wide wireless mobile public safety network. The network's beauty is that it allows citywide public safety agencies to communicate with each other using radio communications, video streaming, photographs or other images in a mobile fashion. Before WiMAX, the city lacked the bandwidth to achieve streaming video, still pictures or building diagrams.

     "Police and fire have the need for this," stresses Ralph Gould, communications bureau manager for the Grand Rapids Police Department, who coordinated with other regional agencies to adopt WiMAX. "If we have a barricaded gunman or a hostage-taker at a bank or a house, being able to transmit views of the building that person has barricaded himself in to other decision-makers is very important."

     In the case of a fire, streaming video would be of greater value over still photos, he notes, "because it would be possible to transmit that not only to people in the immediate area, but also to other battalion chiefs and the fire chief's department itself to watch that incident without having to be at the actual scene."

     Armed with a powerful and wide-ranging frequency of 2.5 Ghz, WiMAX can speed up public safety dispatch and allow quicker access to databases by field personnel.

     This means, for example, that a SWAT team leader could access criminal or suspect records during a warrant search or hostage/stand-off situation.

     The Grand Rapids WiMAX buildout includes 20 transmitter-receiver sites throughout a region within the state that includes Grand Rapids and other jurisdictions. The cost for the system is shared by these jurisdictions to make it affordable for all users.

Need for standards

     No matter what interoperability option is chosen, "It's going to get down to standards," asserts Richard Mirgon, president-elect of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International. For years, manufacturers of equipment for networks have sold solutions built to varying standards, preventing other equipment within the same network from compatibly working with these solutions.

     Mirgon urges any entity purchasing a public safety network option to ask two key questions: (1) What tools are needed to accomplish the task for interoperability? (2) Can the vendor provide these tools within a standard?

     "At some point," he says, "the entity is going to collect information and then push it to another agency. If that agency doesn't have equipment that operates on that same standard, they won't be able to play it or use it. When there is a standard, you can solve problems sooner than you can with competing technologies."

     Welded to the standards issue, Mirgon emphasizes, is cost for building an interoperable public safety network. Manufacturers have typically made proprietary network equipment for a hefty price, locking in customers for years, and often with solutions that may not work with each other.

     "With a standard for everyone, it's more competitive and you can drive the price down," he says. "This will allow people to move data and information and talk to each other and better protect the citizens of this country."

Grants help pay

     Converting to new interoperable networks is ultimately what public safety entities must do, but since many of them are cash-strapped how can the conversion happen in the near future?

     Fortunately, grant money and grant applications guidance is available. Here are some options:

  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, offers a 2009 Interoperable Emergency Communications Grant Program (www.fema.gov/government/grant/iecgp/index.shtm). The program gives assistance and equipment funding to states, territories, and local and tribal governments to execute initiatives to improve interoperable emergency communications.
  • State Departments of Public Safety may have special grant money for assisting with the creation of public safety networks.
  • SAFECOM (www.safecomprogram.gov/SAFECOM/) is a communications program of the Department of Homeland

     Security. Though not a grant-making body, SAFECOM has created coordinated grant guidance to help optimize the effectiveness with which emergency response communications-related grant dollars are allocated and spent. While at the site, for more information, click on the link: FY 2008 SAFECOM Grant Guidance.

     Funding an interoperable public safety network is not easy, but it's also not insurmountable. And there's no reason any one entity need to should bear the cost alone. Given the wide geographic swath that network build-outs cut, it makes sense to also call upon the agencies who share the network to help fund it.

     Bob Galvin is a Portland, Oregon, freelance writer who writes about topics on interoperability as well as on law enforcement technology and software advancements. He can be reached at rsgpr@msn.com.

Interoperability solutions

     Achieving interoperable communications for a specific locale or region can take one of many forms. The following lists a few suggested vendors to consider for your department's network needs.

     Bada Networks. This company offers a scalable real-time IP video processing and collaboration platform that enables customers and partners to seamlessly integrate desktop and videoconferencing, large-scale collaborative video surveillance, and various applications that use multiple streams of real-time video.

     Motorola Inc. This company can build a scalable, IP-based voice communications network with one of four configurations: G1- for daily operations with neighbors/partnerships, small-scale emergency response; G4 - for a robust network at in incident; GX - for emergencies impacting responders from a large geographic area.

     Alcatel-Lucent. This company takes advantage of the CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications Service) and WiMAX modes with its Mobile Microwave Backhaul Network. Based on an IP platform, this solution aggregates any kind of incoming traffic, including 2G, 3G and WiMAX over a single Ethernet layer to bolster bandwidth during wireless transport.

     Clearwire. This company builds WiMAX wireless broadband networks for public safety applications. These applications include voice, data and video streaming capabilities that can accommodate high traffic volumes across broad geographic ranges, and using low bandwidth.

     Cisco Systems Inc. and IBM. Provides a modular offering for safety and security planning, operations and incident management. Through its "command, control and collaboration" solution, IBM and Cisco have created three core modules: (1) Unified communications - integrating voice, video, and data for applications such as Web conferencing; (2) Network digital video surveillance to give virtual real-time video and video analysis that can increase public safety; and (3) Virtual Agility's VOC - a portal that links all public safety agencies and teams required for managing an emergency over a network.

     RoamAD. The company presents a wireless networking platform for the creation of multi-use converged wireless networks operating in the 900-MHz, 2.4-GHz, 4.9-GHz and 5-GHs bands. The RoamAD networks support fixed and mobile broadband applications such as: VOiP; surveillance cameras/CCTV; remote, real-time access to police/corporate networks; e-mail and Internet access.

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