Richard Martin explores the use of broadband applications and services for public safety, and the changes that need to be made to working practices in order to "¨unlock their full potential

Richard Martin explores the use of broadband applications and services for public safety, and the changes that need to be made to working practices in order to unlock their full potential


Broadband networks engineered for public safety use are being developed in many countries, most notably in the UK and USA, but what are they going to be used for? 

Part of the answer to this question can be found by looking at what is happening today. Smartphone- or tablet-based applications are currently used by police, fire and medical personnel to take notes, fill in forms while on-site and retrieve information about suspects and locations. First-responders are generally also issued with a radio that can run voice and narrowband applications. Having both devices gives them the ability to communicate anywhere as there will almost always be coverage from either the narrowband or cellular network.  

Mapping public safety applications to the stages of events
The matrix shown on page of the September/October issue of TETRA Today illustrates the various stages of an incident involving public safety officers – this can be a single agency event or involve several services – and the applications that can be used at each stage. These exist today and are well-proven on existing narrowband networks such as TETRA. They include call-out to identify and deploy part-time officers, mobile office applications, and vehicle identity checks. Mobile office working on commercial networks is possible on smartphones but will be much more secure on public-safety-grade broadband networks. Other applications and those using pictures and video will stress narrowband communications and possibly limit the voice service. They are natural candidates to use public safety broadband networks. 

The TCCA has two working groups that are looking at broadband and applications. Tero Pesonen is chair of the Critical Communications Broadband Group (CCBG), driving the development and adoption of common mobile broadband standards and solutions. Hannu Aronsson from Portalify is chair of the TCCA Applications Group, which draws its membership from public safety application developers. Together, the two groups have identified a number of principles that help to determine the types of applications suited to public safety broadband, as well as development, deployment and adoption considerations.

Pesonen states that “Trust is a key principle embedded in public safety thinking. This can translate into some hesitation when it comes to the adoption of new applications that could be making operations more effective. The agencies recognise their responsibility for first-responders’ safety; a non-working critical application could lead to injuries or worse. There is an understandable conservatism.” On the other hand, there are many opportunities for innovation leading to more effective operations, so how can we reconcile these contradictions? 

One approach Pesonen suggests is to give students in a public safety training college a problem and challenge them to come up with a novel solution that is then scrutinised by experienced users. In another approach, Motorola Solutions has joined with Telstra, Amazon and public safety agencies in Australia to sponsor a 48-hour hackathon to develop public safety applications. Aronsson adds that many agencies are developing simple applications using tools. There are many applications available on commercial smartphones that could be used by public safety users (more on this later). Aronsson says applications should be available on multiple devices so that officers can continue to use them as they migrate between different networks.

Limited deployment of commercially available applications can be carried out with pilot groups. This limits any risks, enables the applications’ effectiveness to be tested and allows any shortcomings to be identified. Pesonen adds that established protocols and procedures can be a barrier to the effective use of applications. These practices have been developed over a long period and mainly rely on paper for record-keeping and voice for communication. One potential barrier to using applications may be legal requirements that specify the keeping of paper records. Digital data storage systems need to be just as secure as their paper counterparts and designed to ensure that evidential quality is maintained.

Pesonen talks about the evolution of applications and platforms, using Google as an example – once the benefits of using open systems are known, the word spreads. In the case of public safety applications there needs to be a method of sharing experience between agencies, as managers will be more likely to trust those with similar responsibilities. The TCCA holds workshops where such knowledge transfer can take place, in addition to driving enablers for critical communications applications in 3GPP standardisation via its Market Representation Partner (MRP) role.

Pesonen highlights another factor driving the need for rapid innovation: criminals are highly skilled in developing or adapting technology. They are prepared to take risks and are not bound by the legal and procedural restrictions of public safety agencies. They can also hack security systems, use drones, cut through defences and intimidate employees. Applications are needed to anticipate criminal activity, while being as secure as possible against attack. 

Mobile office
The mobile office enables an officer to replicate many of the tasks that would normally require a return to the station or base. Aronsson says: “If we look at examples such as the Netherlands and Switzerland we see officers able to use many basic office services to make their operations more effective. Broadband will add speed and capacity to this.”

 As an example, Pronto is a smartphone application that enables officers to enter information into custom-designed electronic forms. Back in 2016, it was deployed by 16 UK police forces, resulting in estimated savings of £18m.

Clearly, the same versatility we expect in our personal lives can be replicated in the public safety world, but what about security? Should there be restrictions and, if so, where do we build the walls? The example of the BlackBerry secure email service comes to mind – it was used within the UK police forces for some time. Should the email service be limited to the force with no access outside, or perhaps include other emergency services? Or perhaps officers would want members of the public to be able to contact them directly, but with some form of screening for malicious attachments. These are unanswered questions that need to be addressed by each nation, force or even division. 

Voice-to-text conversion would be a useful addition to the mobile office whereby a statement or report can be quickly taken in the field and then shared with others. While it could save a great deal of time, how accurate would this be and what would be the implications for evidential quality? 

Other public safety applications
It is possible today to send the image of a missing child or elderly person, or an escaped convict, to officers’ TETRA handsets. While this can be done faster and with greater resolution over a broadband connection, higher bandwidth will also enable new methods of working; for example, deploying small fire-fighting teams in specific locations ready to respond to fires in that area. The high-speed link will enable the controller to act as a “third man”, sharing information with the two-man team such as building plans and information on hazardous materials, as well as seeing the local conditions from vehicle- or body-mounted cameras. Ensuring the safety of officers in small teams like this is crucial, so body sensors detecting vital signs will give the controller early warning of any danger.

Pesonen highlights how applications add value to data, referring to the Information Value Chain. As an emergency unfolds, raw data is processed into intelligence and specific guidance to each individual operative, which increases its value. He cites a study showing how a nuclear incident begins with the initial alert, then progresses as meteorological information is used to predict the risk areas, leading to specific orders to other agencies to organise the distribution of medicines to high-risk groups such as children.  

The local command centre
This last category focuses on the technology that enables forward commanders and team leaders (in the UK referred to as Bronze Commanders) to perform the functions associated with a static control room while in the field. This approach requires a powerful device with a suitable screen for the local control team, and a data link able to handle a rich range of content including maps, images, location, dispatching and video. Thanks to the combination of modern rugged tablet computers, powerful software and analytics, and high-speed ubiquitous mobile communications, it is now possible to control a significant and complex incident at the scene. This can speed up decision-making based on the most immediate and local information.

As an example of what can be achieved today, in Finland the TETRA service shares a 24/7 situational overview between agencies. This field command solution is connection-aware. When broadband coverage is available it adds rich content to the local command service as a multi-access broadband router is installed into every emergency vehicle. 

Public safety applications providers
A walk around any of the Critical Communications events will highlight the range and depth of the organisations providing applications. Many of these have been working for years with agencies and have a thorough understanding of their needs, providing secure and reliable solutions. Using these solutions may minimise the adaptations required for well-established procedures, and the training for end-users. The TCCA’s Applications Group includes many of the critical communications application providers, and meets regularly to drive standardisation and innovation. The TCCA, in a joint effort from CCBG and the Applications Group, is hosting an event on 12 October in Copenhagen. Users at different stages of development can share and transfer knowledge at this and other future events. Aronsson feels that the early adopters have lessons they can pass on to other agencies that are at an earlier stage. 

Data standards for public safety interoperability
Robert LeGrande from The Digital Decision was the chief technology officer for Washington DC and is the chairman of ICERT, the US organisation for public safety users and manufacturers. He strongly feels that lessons can be learned from the earlier deployment of public safety communications. A good example is the way that the use of disparate systems and applications creates formidable barriers to interoperability. 

LeGrande describes the need to “untether” data to make it possible to share more easily between agencies. He suggests that the deployment of broadband networks for public safety opens new possibilities for radical and powerful applications, but these must be driven by standards. Data will need to be interoperable between agencies and applications. In the UK, British APCO, the Cabinet Office and Welsh government have been working on one such project, Multi-Agency Incident Transfer (MAIT – see for more details). This is in the discussion phase to agree an open schema, with the objective to ensure that the right information can be transferred between control rooms in an easy-to-use format. 

Over in the US, the Department of Commerce has published the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s ‘Public Safety Analytics R&D Roadmap’. This recognises the challenge and opportunity from the flood of data available from body-worn sensors, video and the IoT, and identifies the integration of data from multiple sources as a key objective. Achieving this would enable multiple agencies to merge their data to create a comprehensive view of a situation across a region, or to analyse trends as an aid to planning. Barriers to this include the lack of common data standards as well as data accuracy. Establishing a common public safety data repository with a clear owner would be a first step towards data standardisation and its effective use. The Roadmap recommends establishing trusted values for third-party data. 

Returning to the example of a mobile command centre with broadband links, the transfer of video, biometrics and mapping data will greatly enhance multi-agency working and enable more decisions to be made at the scene of the emergency. It also allows end-users to select the right equipment before leaving their base, saving precious time on-site. However, the data must be secure, and it must be compatible with multiple agencies and their systems.

Standards will specify data formats which will then drive the development of applications that will be capable of the interworking needed for effective multi-agency operations. LeGrande says that “projects will work best when begun with the end in mind”. When we consider operations across state or international borders, both the need and the complexity increase. LeGrande suggests that this will be a major project in the US and Europe, which will drive standards for interoperable data. These can then become available globally and other nations can use them to specify interoperable applications suited to their needs and language. LeGrande also suggests that several user groups and agencies can collaborate to drive these standards, including ICERT, NPSTC and the TCCA. Pesonen says that bodies such as 3GPP do not define standards at the application layer and that the leadership must come from organisations such as the TCCA. 

The way ahead
There are several approaches to providing applications for public safety; one is the close working of development organisations and public safety agencies to enable powerful and secure solutions fully compliant with the agencies’ operations and procedures and the end-users’ needs. This is the approach advocated by LeGrande and, while it delivers high levels of interoperability, it is slow due to the time required for so many organisations to reach consensus on complex and technical issues. 

Another approach is to use off-the-shelf applications from critical communications vendors. Aronsson says “don’t wait, start today with off-the-shelf applications running on narrowband, which give fast return on investment and improvements in operational efficiency”. These may not match a public safety organisation’s requirements exactly but will be much more likely to be secure and compatible with operating procedures and needs than those developed for the public. He adds that “the bottom-up approach with limited deployments enables end-users to evaluate the application, and a decision on wider adoption or development will be based on real experience”. 

Using publicly available applications is also an option, and if officers are already using mobile phones on commercial networks then adding such applications is straightforward. This approach will lack the security and resilience of dedicated public systems and networks but is valid if used by officers who also have a narrowband secure communications device. Finally, the option suggested by Pesonen of using students in a staff college to fast-prototype data applications means solutions can be tested by a limited group without impacting the security and integrity of the main network and operational platforms.

One thing is clear – the applications environment for public safety broadband is in the early stages. While it is ripe for innovation, at the same time the development of standards to ensure interoperability at the data layer is an urgent priority.

Author: Tetra Today