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.