Many public safety agencies have been quick to add these devices to their portfolio of communications tools, and this has undoubtedly helped improve efficiency and effectiveness. In many cases, forces are using such technology as smartphones to provide more administrative tools to the field staff. Remote, on-scene access to systems such as e-mail, word processing, scheduling, and other data can help an officer manage and share case notes, schedule meetings, and generally manage time and effort. These are important but not necessarily critical activities.
Increasingly and inevitably, however, such commercial technology with its multiple capabilities to manage and distribute data was bound to edge into mission-critical uses. The U.S. Airforce, for example, uses handheld devices for command, control and communications functions for its flight line operations. When Research in Motion faced patent problems early in 2006, its federal court filing noted that federal, state and local officials have made the Blackberry a key part of their emergency response plans, and that the device is currently used to provide drug interaction data to physicians and is part of the planning for an avian flu outbreak.
This is why understanding such technology and the network upon which it rests becomes very important. It can mean the difference between life and death for a first responder.
In terms of any application of technology or networking, it is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain. While many of these devices feature high-level, even military-grade, encryption on the data it transmits and receives, there are obvious and stark weaknesses and exposures that can exist on the devices and the commercial networks that may support them. Understanding these potential threats can be key in managing the risk associated with the increasing reliance on this commercial technology.
Commercial networks vs. public safety networks
The differences can be telling between wireless communications applications (such as the Blackberry or the cellular PTT phone) running on a commercial network as compared to wireless services (such as mobile radio voice) on a network optimized for public safety use.
Take a look at just a few examples of how many public safety voice networks are designed and provisioned — at usually great cost — to meet the specific public safety needs as compared to what typically would be done for the emerging commercial network environment.
- A public safety-oriented mobile radio voice network would typically have an automatic start diesel generator at the radio tower site with 7 to 10 days of fuel to protect the site against long-term, wide-area power outages, as compared to a commercial service's wireless tower site that would probably have a battery back-up capable of sustaining power for no more than 2 to 8 hours. A long-term, wide-area power outage may mean saying so long to that smartphone after a few hours.
- A mobile radio voice network supporting police and EMS will usually have communications coverage that will be more extensive than a typical commercial service. As agencies rely on commercial services to augment their mobile radio voice systems, users begin to lose coverage as they hit rural or more remote locations with low population densities. Commercially based networks don't go there. A commercial Blackberry service would probably be lost before a public safety voice radio service.
- In many newer mobile radio networks, with multiple government users, users can be assigned priority access to the system's resources. This means some critical public safety services (such as police) can be given priority over non-critical users such as road crew foremen, especially valuable if a large emergency incident occurs. This priority setting is very difficult, but not impossible, to achieve in a commercially based service. For agencies relying on these services in times of crises, public safety users would be competing for system resources with everybody else in the commercial and residential marketplace.
- Many commercial networks have a significant number of "single points of failure" (i.e. using one device or communications line to perform a critical function supporting a network). That could mean non-redundant fiber line to a tower site. Any back-hoe worth its salt can sever that in seconds. Public safety networks would tend to minimize single points of failure where practical. This might be accomplished by having a microwave back-up at each site, which could kick in primary fiber link to the tower site.