Realising mobile broadband's public safety potential

The Public Safety Network’s TJ Kennedy and Jason Karp talk to Philip Mason about how broadband-enabled data can make a huge contribution to public safety comms prior to the roll-out of national networks

The worldwide mission-critical communications sector is in somewhat of a state of flux, specifically in relation to the move from broadband to narrowband technology.

There are any number of reasons, not least just how complicated the move to drastically improved bandwidth is likely to prove for countries wanting to roll out nationwide coverage. This has been thrust into the spotlight again with the National Audit Office publishing its second rather damning report on the state of the Emergency Services Network project in the UK.

Another reason is that different nation states are moving at drastically different paces when it comes to giving public safety operatives blanket access to LTE. The US was incredibly quick out of the gate with its FirstNet system, for instance, as was ESN, arguably to its own detriment. At the same time, countries such as Germany, which has only just finished deploying its TETRA network, are looking at timescales stretching into the next decade.

It is pretty humbling to realise that the technology being talked about is, by and large, available now (mission-critical push-to-talk notwithstanding). Worse still, the functionality derived from these solutions is something the general public has been taking advantage of for years, for instance in relation to streaming video in real time, IoT functionality and so on.

One organisation committed to highlighting the urgency of this situation is the Public Safety Network. Launched last year in the US, it positions itself essentially as an interlocutor between public safety user groups and the communications technology industry.

Its mission is to “help technology and telecommunications firms develop broadband solutions to meet the needs of public safety”. It was established by several of the prime movers involved in the original roll-out of FirstNet, including TJ Kennedy and Jason Karp.

Over-the-top solutions
Your correspondent spoke to the former following his presentation at Critical Communications Europe earlier in the year, during which he didn’t hold back in relation to public safety organisations’ slowness when it comes to investing in broadband technology. He said: “I don’t know whether it’s exasperation or passion, to be honest. What I do know is that this needs to happen faster around the world than it is currently.

“LTE has been available for nine years already, and by now every first-responder in the world should have access to that technology with key public safety features. The baseline for that – at least for me – is priority, pre-emption and encryption. The model we’re using has meant that we’re using older technology than most consumers, as well as most enterprises.”

His core rationale for this point of view is a fairly straightforward, intuitive belief that the availability of mission-critical data will ensure first-responders are not only more effective, but also safer. At the same time, there are a number of organisational – not to say societal – imperatives that he believes should also be driving work in this area. Or to put it another way, the last thing that public safety partners need when it comes to technology is to get left behind.

“When I started as a first-responder, all we had access to were some low-band VHF radios, with a battery life that was unimpressive to say the least,” Kennedy said. “Mobile radios were mounted in vehicles, coverage was poor and so on... believe it or not there are areas today where people are still leveraging similar technology to that as their primary communications tool.”

He continued: “The men and women who are now graduating out of police or fire academies simply will not accept not being given the best tools to do the job. Not only are they super-talented as well as super-educated, they have grown up with this technology – leveraging smart applications in public safety in ways that many can’t even imagine.”

Another area of technology where Kennedy believes public safety organisations have been considerably behind the curve is in their ability to leverage the cloud. Once public safety has access to encrypted, reliable public safety broadband networks, leveraging the cloud for emergency solutions will become much easier.

“We’re in a situation now where if a PTT team-communication tool isn’t given to first-responders, they will think nothing of leveraging other, commercially available, over-the-top applications while in the field. That could include the likes of Google Hangouts, WhatsApp and so on. So, when people say they’re still concerned about the cloud, I don’t think they are – they use it today in any number of forms. The next step is to embrace dedicated public safety networks using public safety encrypted secured communications platforms that meet the operational needs of their agency.

“Looking at it from a broader organisational perspective, they have started to embrace cloud technology but they’re still not doing it fast enough. That’s why we have to work with innovative technology companies who also want to embrace the needs of public safety.”

Another area of concern for Kennedy is that public safety doesn’t end up lagging behind on 5G (as well as 6G and 7G further down the line). Do we really want to live in a world, after all, where criminals are able to leverage massively high-powered AI, while public safety officials are still figuring out a coherent use-case?

Joined-up solutions
Another speaker at Critical Communications Europe was Karp, who discussed a range of broadband and IoT solutions that are being leveraged by first-responders. His main focus was what he referred to as the ‘connected ambulance’, one iteration of which is currently being developed by the P3 Group in Germany.

He said: “What we’re essentially talking about is leveraging broadband technologies which already exist. Radio is core to that clearly, but what’s really going to enable this is broadband. I think we’re on the cusp of a real breakthrough when it comes to how we use this technology.”

For those who have never come across the connected ambulance, it involves, among other things, the leveraging of broadband communications solutions to enable the real-time flow of life-critical information between paramedics in the field and their destination at the hospital. This, it is anticipated, will not only provide vastly improved situational awareness but also put the patient in a far better position.

“It’s about using the technology in a way which creates a unified platform, deployed end-to-end as a service,” said Karp. “We’re talking about data, patient records, video footage and photos, duplex voice and health monitoring information – the whole spectrum. It really is going to change the face of healthcare.”

He continued: “The fundamental functions will proceed in essentially the same way they do now, but with the key difference that field personnel will have the ability to leverage a mobile communications terminal which can travel with the medical technician both in and out of the vehicle, as well as in many cases an in-router within the ambulance. The mobile communications terminal is a fully connected LTE, multi-SIM solution with its own processing power, encryption and VPN security, which can even connect to satellite backhaul if necessary when within the vicinity of the ambulance.”

“The paramedic will connect the patient monitor to the person needing treatment, and with one push of a button will enable two-way data and voice transmission with the receiving hospital, with an operations file being automatically created and capturing all of the data and communications from the field. This capability enables the paramedic to send all patient information, images, audio dictation, as well as vitals/ECG data directly from the patient monitor in real time.

“If there’s a significant change in the condition of the patient, the communications terminal and associated software can trigger a new alert to the receiving hospital, as such a change in condition may alter the required hospital response.

“In terms of dispatch, that’s also going to become much more data-driven. I’ve got a smartwatch on right now, and so far in the US at least four of the major CAD [computer aided dispatch] companies are integrating their products with that kind of technology. As a public safety professional, I can receive dispatch information on my watch wherever I am. That’s an extraordinary thing to be able to do.”

Looking specifically at the coverage aspect, the connected ambulance concept doesn’t actually seem a million miles away from other single-platform, in-vehicle solutions already being rolled out by emergency services organisations. One example is Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service in the UK, whose mobile Joint Command Unit – also shared by the county’s police force – includes onboard 4G connectivity, satellite back-up and even COFDM (coded orthogonal frequency division multiplexing) video functionality, to live stream drone footage back to the vehicle.

What makes the concept outlined by Karp unique, however, are the sheer number of connected devices and functionalities – each with its own real-world operational task – incorporated within the system. These include the ability to immediately alert the hospital to medication that has been administered at the scene, pre-population of patient data (via the scanning of the patient’s driver’s licence), two-way video-conferencing, body-worn video-streaming, Bluetooth stethoscopes and so on.

Karp continued: “Moving into the ambulance, having stabilised the patient, we then have a 360-degree HD camera which is so clear that the tele-med doctor can check pupil dilation if there’s a head injury. The connectivity will also save time when it comes to getting to the right hospital, for instance if they’re looking after a stroke victim who then has to be taken to specialist facilities. That can all be determined upfront after a case is initiated, opposed to en route to a facility, or even worse once the ambulance has already arrived. This functionality alone can save critical time wasted.

“The other side of that is the opportunity to drill down into the situational awareness piece, for instance looking at how many beds a hospital has available or the situation on the roads. Paramedic safety is also an issue in the United States – for instance, with the shootings which have occurred in recent years – so things like the use of body-worn video in real time will add another element of safety. These are huge issues for firefighters as well, who might end up at a scene thinking they’re dealing with something fire-related and suddenly there’s a gunman.”

Open standards and economies of scale
The roll-out of LTE and its attendant functionality to public safety officials, at least on a national level, is far from straightforward. Reasons for this include – but are by no means limited to – questions over which deployment model to adopt (public-private partnership, dedicated or leveraging commercial networks, etc), continuing conversations around standardisation, legacy contracts, funding and so on.

Another area of doubt, meanwhile, is the degree to which the technology companies themselves will be willing to accommodate the needs of the sector as the requirement for specific, task-orientated, emergency-services-related technology increases.

As CCT put it to the Public Safety Network’s Kennedy, is there enough money available in the sector for them to actually make the necessary investment in public-safety-related R&D and manufacture?

“Ah, you’ve hit on my favourite subject,” he said. “That all comes back to questions around standardisation, which I believe is the thing which will ultimately open the market up. If there’s a set of agencies around the world that are all building on open standards, the economies of scale for public safety application become the same whether it’s in the US, Australia or the UK. We need to embrace open standards to get the economies of scale of the tens of millions of public safety users to improve the options that are available to all first-responders.

“The other thing which becomes easier in that scenario is the sales process, particularly when tethered to the concept of ‘as a service’. The same kinds of companies that are involved in that area currently will also be able to produce increasing numbers of public-safety-grade solutions if they choose to, as will new and disruptive start-ups, which is something we’re starting to see all the time now. As soon as you have assured connectivity, the market becomes increasingly viable because the tools become available for use all the time.”

Staying on the subject of assured connectivity, Kennedy believes that another illustration of the above point is the impact which the roll-out of FirstNet has had on the market, specifically when it comes to spurring other US-based MNOs into action.

“We’re now seeing other companies who didn’t necessarily win the FirstNet contract starting to look at public safety as a more important part of the business,” he said. “In other words, providing some kind of pre-emption and priority specifically for the benefit of those on the front line. I’m all for the government models and hybrid networks, but if there’s real buy-in from the right business model, we know that services can be available in a very short space of time.”

When it comes to the prospect of increased connectivity, the future is clearly incredibly bright for those in public safety around the world. The only question now is how fast can we rollout more public safety broadband networks globally to provide these great capabilities to all responders?