By Doug Wyllie
You get a call in the middle of the night. You're going.
You're groggy, but you're ready. You've known for days that the storm may hit, so you’ve planned for it. You've also known that unlike last time, you'll be able to talk with all the other first responders arriving from across the region when you get there.
"This'll be gnarly," you think as you grab your gear and you get moving, "but it'll be okay."
At the 78th annual Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials Conference and Expo in Minneapolis, C4i announced a few new wrinkles in their already-robust suite of public safety VoIP solutions. For those who aren't already in the know, we're talking about a company that designs, manufactures and integrates communications solutions for public safety, military, and other "second responder" customers.
On the move
The first thing that caught my eye at the C4i booth — and the attention of a great many other APCO attendees — is something the company calls the Communications - On The Move (C-OTM) transportable unit.
From the outside, it's just a box, but when you look inside, things get interesting.
With all its necessary components packed into a single 22- x 13.8- x 9-inch Pelican case, you're basically talking about standing up an interoperable communications command center in a suitcase which fits into an airline carry-on space.
"We call it a fly-away kit," explained Brad Kay, president of C4i America, when we spoke. "It's our dispatch solution compressed into a case you can carry onto an airplane. It has all the features of our standard radio dispatch console in a compact unit that can be used for an incident commander or some other deployable application where you want radio interoperability, or reach-back capability through a phone system to headquarters."
The software in the C-OTM unit — like other C4i offerings — is called SwitchplusIP, which also got attention during APCO for some pretty interesting upgrades. Amid a laundry list of software upgrades — everything from improved system configuration and startup performance to little tweaks to a variety of other things — was one pretty substantial new capability.
"Incorporated into that software is a 10,000-contact phone book," Kay said. "That's fully searchable based on user name, job title, location, and so on."
There are a lot of potential uses for the C-OTM unit — from the "middle of the night phone call" scenario above, to something completely mundane. For example, if power to the dispatch center fails out of nowhere, you can rapidly stand up that capability in a vehicle, running on the vehicle's power.
"We've had positive feedback from a lot of different people," Kay said.
Cell site in a box?
Another product that the company announced during the event is the SwitchplusIP LTE Pico-Cell Cellular Interface Unit (CIU). This thing may actually have an even higher "cool factor" than the C-OTM unit, and that's saying quite a lot.
"Something we didn't even have at APCO but is available now to demo is a 4G LTE solution for our deployable systems," Kay said. "This will create a standalone 4G LTE cell site, with a reach-back capability to headquarters. We see that as being of interest to people who may have to go out to an area where they've lost cellular capability or it was never there to begin with because it was such a rural area."
In addition to rural fire and EMS departments, this system could find itself in the most remote areas during wildland fires.
Part of the SwitchplusIP building block family of communications systems, the CIU provides the ability to quickly deploy a private, public safety-only network in LTE, UMTS, or GSM for cellular voice and data capability.
Supporting smartphones or simple wireless devices, calls can be placed through the SwitchplusIP system to any SIP phone, analog or digital phone, PBX, FXS, or FXO circuit. Patching to or from radio systems is easily configured and managed and can be a seamless interoperability solution.
If you want to be able to give first responders the capability of sharing images, videos and other data, LTE is obviously the top choice now available, and with this new unit, it can be put into the field in a flash.
In fact, that’s already happened once.
"When they had the forest fires out in Colorado Springs last month, one of the things we were asked to do to support the Army out there was to supply them with a stand-alone cellular capability because they were concerned that all the commercial cell towers were going to go down," Kay said.
Kay told me that C4i quickly delivered the new device to the Army personnel stationed at Fort Carson something they could set up in a vehicle and drive out to any site they wanted to provide comms — any site where they were going to set up fire response.
The unit — again around the size of a suitcase — was installed in an Army Humvee, and an antenna was bolted to the roof. Personnel there were briefed on its capabilities and operation, and almost instantly they had a fully functioning private 4G LTE network that only first responders could access.
The system even had a satellite capability with which they could connect to those commercial carrier networks (these ended up staying up).
"Using their smartphones, they would be able to share images of particular buildings or affected areas, as well as send email or text messages back and forth — basically, more capability than they had with just a two-way radio system there," Kay said.
As it happens, the Colorado fires were coming under control before that system was actually put into use. It was reassuring, I'm sure, to have it on hand had things happened differently.