The Fire Service Charts Its Own Path to Broadband

Mike Petersen   Mike Petersen

Walk into a firehouse anywhere and you’re likely to hear firefighters talking about broadband. The fuel for these discussions often is news of a new, more powerful consumer smartphone. Firefighters want access to the capabilities consumer devices deliver.

They are anxious for FirstNet to deploy, providing a nationwide public safety broadband network over which mission-critical devices can operate, but the timing is still unclear.

“Imagine what broadband can mean for EMS if personnel are documenting injuries to hundreds of people in a major disaster,” says Don Wright, retired battalion chief in Glendale, California. “Think about the impact this could have for a victim’s continuity of care if physicians at receiving hospital emergency rooms had the same information in real time.”

Everyone agrees on the broadband objective-arm incident commanders (ICs) with the communications tools they need to “have the back” of the team. And, the benefit is clear-situational awareness raised to an entirely new level. The question is when this will happen.

The Transition Begins

It may be sooner than many thought. “We are just at the start of our transition to broadband,” says Mike Worrell, acting chief, Technical Services Division, Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department. “But, the fire service is moving forward cautiously. We want to be sure that the networks and devices we use are reliable and cost-effective to operate.”

Many departments have decided to start taking advantage of broadband themselves. These departments have discovered that they have several options available. On the network side, today’s carriers provide services in multiple band classes plus 3G, 4G LTE, and WiFi. And when FirstNet is available, making the transition from these carrier networks will be easier than starting from scratch.

As for broadband devices, options today include smartphones, vehicular modems, USB LTE adaptors, and embedded LTE modules. And, several new public safety grade devices can connect to carrier LTE networks and to the future FirstNet network.

“We are experimenting with public safety broadband-capable LTE modems to create hot spots within our fire apparatus,” says Kasey Beal, deputy chief, Fire Technical Services Division, Mesa (AZ) Fire and Medical Department. “By creating a hot spot, we can connect multiple devices to the modem and substantially decrease our ongoing air card costs.”

Needs, Expectations Clarified

Working with broadband has helped departments better identify requirements for the future. The list includes the predictable-rugged, standards-compliant devices and the technological flexibility to accommodate emerging technologies ranging from biometrics to drones.

But, there are other pressing requirements-how best to manage data, training, and costs. Everyone agrees information over broadband must be understandable, easily usable, and targeted primarily to ICs. “You can’t distract a guy with data while his primary job is operation of a hoseline,” Wright says.

Training will take time to get to “best practices.” And, cost will be a significant factor. Departments will have to make hard choices from an ever-expanding list of compelling options. Many of the hardware and application solutions may ultimately depend on when FirstNet deploys. That said, some thought leaders believe departments could be working more closely with engineers to develop systems and applications that could be put to use now.

Regardless of one’s personal view, there is a reality that all agree is true. “Building a public safety broadband network is like constructing the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s,” Beal says. “Once the network is in place, public safety applications will evolve to take advantage of the protected bandwidth.”

Collaboration Drives Device Development

Collaboration with hardware and software engineers already is leading to some promising new device options. One comes from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The agency began work on its Fire Line Advanced Situational Awareness for Handhelds (Flash) after 19 firefighters died in an Arizona wildfire in 2013. It is a version of the communications system used by special-operations personnel in areas without a communications infrastructure. These radios create a network in which signals can be bounced between nodes and over or around obstacles. The system provides GPS coordinates, can send photos, and can play video sent from planes and drones. It also can connect through gateways to cellular and satellite networks and to the Internet.

Momentum Builds

As work progresses on FirstNet, and new devices and applications become available, momentum for broadband in the fire service is building.

“Broadband is a really big deal for the fire service,” says Worrell. “It puts limitless information in the palm of a firefighter’s hand. And, the applications created for these systems will enable us to track people, monitor their conditions, and help them navigate the challenging environments they work in every day.” Nothing is more important.

MIKE PETERSEN is director of ASTRO Subscriber Product Management for Motorola Solutions, Inc.

Mission-Critical Handheld Device

Last October Motorola Solutions introduced a sophisticated mission-critical handheld device. The LEX L10 has a 2.3 GHz quad-core processor. It features noise suppression, front-facing loud speakers, and a 4.7-inch HD Gorilla Glass 3 display. The rugged device will withstand a drop of four feet to a concrete floor and submersion in water down to one meter for 30 minutes. The device even can be secured with Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) 140-2 Level 3 encryption and Security Enhanced Android OS and Secure Boot to deter cyber threats.

A dedicated push-to-talk button makes it easy to use the WAVE® work group communications app to instantly communicate with land mobile radio users. It can be used for real-time video sharing, resource location mapping, and access to computer aided dispatch information. The LEX L10 features dual SIM card slots so that it can work on Verizon’s 4G LTE network as well as FirstNet’s Band 14 public safety LTE network in the future.

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