Public Safety Interoperability Challenges Remain – Why We Need FirstNet

January 22nd, 2015 by Ben Yelin

CHHS Senior Law and Policy Analyst Christopher Webster also contributed to this blog.

Last week, an electrical fire in the Washington D.C. metro caused heavy smoke outside the L’Enfant Plaza Station. Dozens of passengers were trapped amidst thick black smoke. Carol Glover of Alexandria, Virginia tragically lost her life in the event; and, over 80 others were hospitalized due to smoke inhalation and other serious injuries. In the aftermath of the event, both local and national media have focused on the failure of emergency communications systems; specifically the 800 MHz radio, which did not function properly in the metro tunnels. The tragedy of this event helps illuminate some lingering challenges for public safety communications.

Currently, first responders in the United States rely on tried-and-true push-to-talk radios, often referred to as “land mobile radios” (“LMR”) systems. The vast majority of public safety LMR systems, like the one that failed last week in D.C., are mission-critical voice communications systems, meaning they are built to very high standards of reliability to carry voice communications. These voice networks are the bread-and-butter of day-to-day public safety communications. They, however, are not perfect.

Among the practical challenges of communicating over LMR systems two particular issues seem to be at the heart of most failures. First, LMR network are typically voice only, meaning no text messaging, no email, no picture messages, no Google searches, no video can be transmitted, etc. Second, public safety LMR systems are typically deployed on an agency-by-agency, county-by-county, or sometimes even department-by-department basis. This makes getting all these disparate networks to work together a never-ending challenge (one often referred to broadly as “interoperability”).

Luckily, there is a plan in place to move beyond LMR to Long Term Evolution (“LTE”), a technology a lot more familiar to us in our everyday lives. LTE solves the first major problem with LMR by its very nature; LTE networks are built to carry data of any type – text, email, pictures, video, and of course, good old-fashioned voice. Unfortunately, commercial LTE networks simply aren’t built to the reliability standards required by first responders, so while the technology exists, and is used today by the public, it cannot be whole-heartedly adopted by first responders.

Spurred by high-profile public safety communications failures during 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, and recognizing that commercial networks would never meet the reliability standards needed by first responders, Congress passed a law creating “FirstNet,” a project to build a dedicated LTE network for first responders. FirstNet will overcome the no-data challenges of LMR by being built from the ground up as a data-centric network designed to carry voice, video, text, and other digital feeds. FirstNet also aims to solve LMR’s other pesky challenge – getting the patchwork of existing networks to interoperate – by launching a single, nationwide network.

With reliable data in a post FirstNet world, even if radio communications were to fail, first responders could:

  • communicate via text
  • send each other video of the incident scene
  • use GPS technology to locate points of interest
  • obtain access to material safety data sheets in the event of some sort of hazardous release

FirstNet is an exciting step in the right direction for public safety communications. All that excitement, however, can come at a cost. While FirstNet is promising for the future of public safety communications, emergency responders across the State and Nation still largely rely on their mission critical LMR systems. The convergence of FirstNet and those LMR systems is at least a decade away, meaning that there is still an urgent need to have reliable, redundant and public-safety grade LMR networks. FirstNet may be the hot topic of the public safety communications world, but when an emergency takes place, first responders today will attempt to use push-to-talk radios, and we must continue to ensure that these systems function properly.

Though public safety officials generally rely on LMR as their main form of communication, there are some areas that LMR coverage has difficulty reaching. As last week’s incident showed, subway tunnels are one of these areas. Interestingly, in the absence of mission critical voice, first responders in D.C. ended up using alternative forms of communication, specifically cell phones. Several commercial carriers provide coverage to metro riders in downtown D.C., and some reports suggest that commercial networks proved more reliable in this incident than public safety LMR handsets.

Incidents like this remind us of a few very important points:

  1. We need the FirstNet project to be a big success so that first responders can have reliable LTE data connections in the places they respond – including the tunnels and subways under our cities.
  2. Public safety leadership cannot forget to maintain, update, and train on existing LMR systems. Interoperability between systems, agencies, and users remains a huge challenge, and it isn’t going away any time soon.
  3. We need to remember that public safety communications can never be taken for granted. Moreover, that failures are often due to more than just technology. Shortcomings in operating procedures, failed planning, insufficient training, or a lack of comprehensive exercising undo many of most technologically advanced systems.

At CHHS, our interoperability experts assist policymakers and other stakeholders in designing public safety communications systems to both maintain robust LMR systems and prepare for the arrival of FirstNet. Under the direction of CHHS Senior Law and Policy Analyst Lori Romer Stone, CHHS staff has spent the last year reaching out to stakeholders across Maryland to conduct outreach and solicit feedback in order to build a public safety data network that fits Maryland’s needs.

The District of Columbia is already conducting an investigation into the causes of both the incident itself and the communications errors surrounding it. Instead of dwelling more on what went wrong last week, it’s important to learn from the event and support the coming advances in public safety technology.


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