The dirtiest words in law enforcement communications

These days, mobile devices are smart and they’re getting smarter. Operating systems juggle various applications at once, making it possible for people to look up movie times and discuss them with friends in real-time while navigating their way to the closest theater. Civilians are completely reliant on their smartphones and must-have tablets … but many people do not realize the technology they have access to is often way more sophisticated than that employed by law enforcement.

Smartphones and tablets are evolving so quickly that we no longer blink an eye when the newest device or version is released. We know that for around $200 and a two-year provider agreement a world of mobile voice, video and other clever data tools are available, keeping us one download, text or chat away from anyone or any interest in the world. Commercial enterprises have followed suit, discovering there are cost savings and productivity enhancements to be had by embracing technologies already bundled with their mobile work forces. New software platforms make it possible for enterprises to run various mobile devices over any network, allowing workers to contribute to a unified cause from any device of their choice.

This was unheard of not long ago. Most enterprise workers, public safety officials or military personnel had limited options and often recycled the same incumbent technologies like push-to-talk two-way radios. But newer, faster 4G and Wi-Fi networks and device capabilities have changed this, allowing industries with large mobile work forces to incorporate new devices into their existing communications architecture for a truly unified communications and operations experience.

Like consumers and the commercial enterprise, law enforcement will benefit from a rich application environment that delivers voice, data and video capabilities. Trade magazines, radio hardware vendors, even agency communications strategists are all celebrating these exciting opportunities, specifically what Long-Term Evolution (LTE) will bring to the public safety table. Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission set LTE as the standard for a nationwide public safety broadband network, which is close to becoming a reality. Certainly new possibilities come with the faster mobile exchange of bandwidth-intensive voice and data, generating stronger response scenarios for public safety. Overcoming jitter and latency, as well as sharing real-time video, high-resolution images and better, more detailed maps, is only a sliver of what we can expect to see from the adoption of LTE.

However, while consumers and enterprises greet the newest device, law enforcement personnel rely on the same devices they’ve been using for 65-plus years — proprietary, multi-thousand dollar radios from a handful of vendors that do nothing more than allow them to talk to each other. Consumer technology should not be more advanced than public safety technology innovation. Those texting their buddies while watching YouTube videos are holding a world of technological progression in their hands, while our first responders rely on World War II-era technology.

Competition in the consumer market has demanded that vendors continually evolve, creating do-it-all devices like the iPhone, and bringing unknown companies like HTC to the forefront. Consumer demand is the reason the commercial market beat the public safety market in meeting its need for mobility, flexibility and security, as well as device form, fit and function.

The familiar (albeit uncomfortable) story in the public safety community is that progress costs a lot of money. Many of the developments that are associated with quicker voice and data traffic come with a caveat — the purchase of expensive new radio devices and hardware systems. P25 promised a world of interoperable communications for public safety, but only in exchange for the replacement of an agency’s full radio inventory. Sadly for the sake of progress in the public safety landscape, the LTE dialogue hasn’t been elevated beyond the cultural status quo. Hardware vendors are still driving discussions with the intent to sell more radios, leaving the same audiences with the same takeaways. But the pace of commercial sector device innovation is so rapid today that the public safety industry must reassess its approach to supporting law enforcement in the field. Many public safety officials and agencies have grown tired of business as usual.

What the consumer market has long realized and the public safety market is starting to realize, is that the next big communications paradigm is not centered on the device. Although we are talking about tablets and smartphones, applications have commoditized hardware, causing a shift from device-centric to software-based decision making. Consumers are replacing their landlines with cell phones. Enterprises are equipping workers with smartphones and tablets instead of PCs and laptops. Why? Because applications are the ultimate multi-purpose tool for customizing user experiences. Applications can turn your tablet into a GPS device and turn your smartphone into a radio.

Of course no one is suggesting that law enforcement agencies go to Best Buy and purchase several EVO 4Gs or iPads. Public safety devices must withstand extremely challenging environments and be equipped with hardened cases, bigger batteries, shatter-resistant and non-glare screens and more. But this doesn’t mean law enforcement agencies need to spend thousands of dollars on the newest version of the radio they already have. It should be tapping into the innovation that’s already here.

I would argue that nearly ninety-percent of what law enforcement needs is already trundling down the production lines of top smartphone manufacturers. Device technology is no longer the lightweight, occasional use, consumer-only quality it was 10 years ago. Today it takes minor modifications to ruggedize any device for the toughest environments. Hardened casing and bigger batteries — it’s all available. Put them around the innards of a standard smartphone and you’ve got a public safety device that can do everything law enforcement needs — certainly costing more than a consumer smartphone, but for a fraction of the time and cost of a radio.

Nobody wants to talk about radio replacement; it is the dirtiest phrase in the public safety communications community, especially for the incumbent vendors who have become accustomed to the lengthy and profitable public safety business. Admittedly, radio has done its part in supporting traditional public safety communications. But traditional land mobile radio is becoming less relevant, making room for data-centered communications that do way more and cost way less. Like the consumer market, law enforcement is looking to multiple applications running over broadband IP networks to meet its technology needs. And they can look no further than the consumer market to find it.

Imagine your officers are equipped with smartphones and they are responding to an armed robbery in progress. With a smartphone, they can communicate in real-time with dispatch, who has an on-scene witness on the line with a suspect description. In fact, the witness is able to send the officers a picture of the suspect. Not only can the officers see what the suspect looks like, they can assess his surroundings by simultaneously viewing a map of the scene. Throughout the incident, you can communicate directly with your officers via voice, video or text from wherever you are and on whatever device you have. When the incident is resolved, your officers can record voice-to-text to fill out the report, which they can pair with video and pictures from the scene and send to you over a secure network.

With traditional public safety communications this scenario is currently impossible. But there is no reason why law enforcement cannot benefit from consumer and enterprise innovation and utilize smartphones to meet their needs in the field now. Applications allow law enforcement to employ the same tools — with some minor adjustments. Sure, public safety agencies might have to build app stores. But let’s not get too despondent about how these technologies can change law enforcement, just as they have changed enterprise and the consumer market.