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by Robert Avsec

How to get broadband on a budget

Cross-platform, interoperable communication is no longer reserved for fire departments with deep pockets

By Robert Avsec

Imagine the communications and information sharing challenges that a small town in the United States would encounter if faced with events like these:

  • A major snowstorm that forces the closure of a nearby interstate highway and stranded hundreds of holiday travelers;
  • Several people taken hostage at the local post office; and
  • A roaming sniper in a nearby metropolitan area that mobilizes statewide public safety agencies to apprehend the perpetrators.

Sounds improbable, right, like a script for an episode of a television crime drama show? Don't tell that to the good people of Wytheville, Va., because they've lived it.

Wytheville is a small town in southwestern Virginia with a resident population of about 8,000; the Wytheville Department of Public Safety (WDPS) includes the Wytheville police and fire departments, the E-911 communication center, animal control and building inspections.

Bend it like Wytheville
So how did a small locality like Wytheville learn to play bigger and manage incidents like these on a small-town budget? 

They employed existing wireless broadband to integrate their existing land mobile radio (LMR) systems, hard-line telephone systems, local government and databases into a more effective and efficient public safety communications system. In doing so, WDPS became one of the first organizations of its kind on the east coast to respond to incidents like these and have communications that enabled everyone to talk to everyone.

If tiny Wytheville can do it, so can your department and the other agencies that you run with. The robust nature of today's commercial wireless broadband (CWB) environment offers a multitude of capabilities to organizations of every size and budget never before seen in public safety communications.

This ever-expanding technology gives any organization the capability to integrate its existing land mobile radio systems, dispatch center operations, hard-line telephone systems and wireless telephone service into a truly integrated communications system that's very cost-effective. 

Why improve communication
When I teach classes, I know that one of the first questions I have to address is, "What's in it for me?" So why should your department take this road to better communications on the emergency scene?

Ultimately it will improve the safety, effectiveness and efficiency of emergency operations by enabling first responders to deal with the critical issues over their respective LMR systems, while having interoperability between diverse LMR systems.

Organizations using CWB-based solutions can eliminate boundaries, improve mobility and expand capacity, with a scalable network that supports both voice and data applications, such as, GPS and video surveillance. Because CWB eliminates technology boundaries — CWB vendors offer nationwide service — local, state, and federal response allies can all be patched into your incident command structure during an event.

This lets responders quickly get on the same page, which creates greater situational awareness and improves incident management — all while providing a separate, redundant communications system that isn't dependent upon the public telephone network.

It also enable personnel from allied response agencies, such as public works, social services, inspections and maintenance, to operate on a parallel wireless network using their own LMRs and wireless devices like smartphones and tablet computers.

When necessary, however, CWB provides interoperability, which gives everyone the capability to jump in and out of designed communication groups. For example, when an engine company officer encounters a road closed due to fallen trees following a severe thunderstorm, he or she can fluidly communicate with public works colleagues in the area to obtain tree removal services — the system connects the officer's LMR to the smartphone carried by the public works person and they communicate as if they both have the same device in their hands.

Money talks
CWB systems can be installed in just a few weeks and are very economical. Conversely, LMR systems take a lot of time and money to build. Depending upon your current system's size, complexity and your requirements, the CWB cost will be in the thousands of dollars as opposed to millions of dollars for LMR systems. Organizations have built these systems for as little as $2,000, and many other jurisdictions have birthed their hybrid systems for less than $5,000.

Today CWB technologies can be integrated into virtually any console system, dispatch or PBX telephone, including Motorola, Zetron, Avtec, Telex, Catalyst and Cisco. CWB can tear down the communication silos within your local government and give everyone communications commonality without having to replace their existing technology infrastructure.

As a fire chief, imagine being able to watch the store regardless of where your duties take you. You don't have to imagine because most CWB now operates on its own dedicated private network and can provide nationwide roaming and unlimited capacity.

CWB technology exists to seamlessly connect with Internet Protocol-based dispatch solutions along with existing trunked or conventional LMR system, including analog, digital, 800 MHz, VHF or UHF.

CWB on scene
So, what can all of this mean to the incident commander on the emergency scene? It can mean unlimited access to the critical information needed to safely, effectively and efficiently manage the emergency scene. 

CWB technology, when combined with storing information with cloud computing, can give you the information you need right on your wireless device. This information can include:

  • Access to pre-incident plans including drawings and maps.
  • Access to departmental standard operating guidelines. No longer will personnel have to manage high-risk, low-frequency events from memory; the incident commander can look it up and take the correct action the way its stated in the SOGs.
  • Access to critical reference materials for incidents involving hazardous materials, technical rescue, search and rescue, etc.
  • Access to real-time weather data including dynamic radar imaging and weather alerts.
  • Video conferencing capabilities. Every person with a wireless device can become part of the team providing visual and voice data back to the incident commander: you see and hear what they can see and hear.
  • Conduct situation status briefings without having to recall your key tactical leaders to the command post and temporarily removing them from their leadership functions.
  • Access municipal records such as tax records (to quickly identify building or property ownership), permit records (building permits, open burning permits, etc.), utility maps and storm sewer maps. Who wouldn't want to do away with hand-drawn map cards with outdated information about hydrant locations?

Right now, there are applications for wireless devices — on both the Android and Apple operating systems — that can provide you and your people with this kind of information. Best of all, the department does not have to bust the budget to get dramatically improved communication capabilities.

About the author

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an active instructor for fire, EMS, and hazardous materials courses at the local, state, and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor of science degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master of science degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Since his retirement in 2007, he has continued to be a life-long learner working in both the private and public sectors to further develop his "management sciences mechanic" credentials. He makes his home near Charleston, W.Va. Contact Robert at Robert.Avsec@FireRescue1.com


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