Ringing Busy: Managing Commercial Telecommunications in a Public Safety World

A police officer, alone, has a vehicle stopped by the side of the road late at night. A few miles back he'd checked the plates with the DMV database through his onboard laptop and isolated the name of the vehicle owner. Now that he's stopped, he's pulled out his Blackberry and queries a national criminal database to check if the car's registered owner — who'd been driving erratically — has any outstanding warrants. The officer waits. He waits. No response. He can't raise dispatch. He puts his Blackberry back in its holster, opens the cruiser door and begins walking toward the vehicle.

This scene usually does not end badly. Almost always a window will come down; a license and registration will be handed over, and another happy customer will go home or go to the cruiser's back seat.

Neither is the scene some far off fiction. As always, policing organizations continue to be early adopters of a range of communications technologies and services. The scene described above is based on real situations in such places as Lake Township, Ohio; the Cape Breton Regional Municipality in Nova Scotia, Canada; and West Yorkshire, England.

But as police and other public safety agencies begin to use these new tools and services, as they integrate the latest and greatest gadgets and gizmos into their daily work lives, they are becoming increasingly dependent upon "commercial" telecommunications systems, services and applications. This exploding use of the commercial networks by agencies, such as the police, may be introducing new threats and risks to the public safety equation.

The wireless explosion
A tsunami of commercial wireless communications products and services is washing over the world. And it's only just begun. Just in very recent past, the telecommunications industry has introduced:

  • Smartphones — Is it a cell phone? Is it a mobile data terminal? Is it a mobile personal digital assistant? It's actually all three. These souped-up cell phones — now personified by the dominant Blackberry and competitors such as Ericsson R380 — have both phone and computer-like features (e-mail, scheduling, Internet, custom applications) and are becoming ubiquitous throughout government. There are at least 4 million Blackberry users in the United States, and a quarter of those are in public safety organizations.
  • Cellular Push To Talk (also known as PTT or PoC) is another communications technology with a split personality. With the features of both a cell phone (one-to-one communications) and a mobile radio (one to many), cellular PTT use in the United States is exploding and will almost double to nearly 34 million users between 2004 and 2009. One of its strengths is that it's everywhere. Three nationwide networks (Nextel's Direct Connect, Verizon Wireless' Push-to-Talk and Sprint's Ready Link) were recently evaluated for use by public safety organizations. The Mitre Corp. study said the technology showed promise as a back-up system and as a method to augment the coverage of traditional mobile radio systems.
  • Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Enabled Devices — such as radios, cell phones tablet PCs and other wireless devices which can, for example, provide GIS mapping information on scene to first responders, or be used for virtual real-time personnel and asset tracking (i.e. GIS systems that support EMS for example). The Maui (Hawaii) Police Department uses a GIS-based system that allows dispatchers to track the locations of people using a wireless phone to call in an emergency.
  • Mobile Data Terminals (MDTs) — in widespread use among police and EMS, MDTs often enable specific mission-critical applications, such as emergency patient care reporting applications for EMS; DMV, criminal or other remote database access for police; and automated vehicle location (AVL) for anyone running and dispatching a fleet of vehicles over a wide area.

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.

These examples, and there are many others, show there can be big differences between how commercial networks and public safety networks are designed and perform. It's essential for those within public safety agencies to understand the differences between the two, so that these organizations can mitigate the potential impact of such risks on their officers in the field.

Understanding the threats and risks
If an agency is either currently using a new commercially based wireless communication service or device or planning on incorporating one into its critical business, there are at least two important things a manager can do to help make its use safer for field staff.

  • Have a threat-risk assessment performed. Find qualified independent consultants who can work with the department's telecommunications provider to understand and report back on the potential technical, operational and business risks associated with depending upon a specific commercial communications tool or service. Once armed with this information, the agency can carefully develop standard operating procedures to deal with the possible impact of a shortcoming on the network. Ideally, this should be performed before making the decision to rely on the service.
  • Ask the provider to detail its business continuity/business resumption plans with respect to the network the department's commercial service may rely on. Any responsible network provider has a detailed plan for how it will restore its communications service if it is interrupted for any reason.

Emerging commercial networking technologies and devices can be a boon to policing and other first response services. Much of policing now — from our friend with his Blackberry, late at night, a vehicle stopped on the side of the road, to the detective working a major crime — is about the management and communication of information. Because there's such a massive worldwide market for new and innovative wireless applications, the choices for the public and public safety will only grow richer over time — which is a good thing for everyone. But as choice grows, so does responsibility. That means the responsibility to seek all the information available, and then plan accordingly. If it was you making that walk from the cruiser, you'd want nothing less.