3 technologies that will change how firefighters communicate
Integrated push-to-talk, NPSBN and multi-band radios soon will expand how fire and EMS can communicate on scene
By David Simon
Long-Term Evolution is the current technical standard for 4G high-speed wireless broadband voice and data communications, usually associated with commercial applications. However, the nationwide public safety broadband network (NPSBN) currently in development will leverage the same LTE used for commercial cellular networks.
In 2012, the U.S. Congress authorized the allocation of 700 MHz dedicated spectrum, dubbed the D-Block, to the public-safety community. It also created FirstNet, a governing authority charged with overseeing the NPSBN build-out.
Public safety officials and FirstNet will assure that the NPSBN is designed specifically for public safety use, which means it must support communications whenever public-safety users require it and not be subject to network overload.
During disasters, access to reliable, integrated communications and strategic information is critical to an effective response, and using LTE for the NPSBN should provide public safety agencies with a number of key benefits, not the least of which is greater capacity for the transfer of all kinds of data, including video.
A look at LMR and LTE
Industry leaders and companies within the public-safety community have made signiﬁcant investments in LMR technology and solutions over the years to create mission-critical systems for voice communications. LMR networks provide a reliable coverage footprint, with proven voice capabilities and time-tested durability.
It is expected by most in the public -safety community that those LMR networks will continue to be in service for quite some time. As the planning and implementation of the new public safety broadband network starts to roll out, public safety agencies can continue to benefit from existing cost- and time-effective mission-critical services and investments that have been made over the course of decades, while also beginning to leverage the advantages of LTE broadband technology.
One of the most important considerations for users of public-safety communications is managing technology convergence effectively. This refers to how today's LMR networks and the new LTE-based network may work together to create the optimum communications environment for public-safety professionals and their mission-critical equipment.
Integration of existing LMR capabilities with emerging broadband capabilities enables public-safety users to transition effectively to a true coast-to-coast public-safety communications network. Some companies are providing tools for a multi-network environment where LTE and LMR networks can interoperate and let users – whether in the command center or on the front lines –communicate across borders and agencies.
Equipment for building the NPSBN
LTE-capable tablets and several types of voice and data applications can put the necessary tools and power of both LTE and LMR into the hands of users as an integrated solution. For example, push-to-talk (PTT) applications now are available that ensure officers can communicate with each other regardless of their geographic position and using either a commercial cellular or private LMR network, bridging the gap between LTE and LMR.
These applications enable communication between traditional radio systems and other IP networks, including commercial cellular (3G, 4G and LTE) networks, Wi-Fi and local area networks.
To be as useful as possible, these tools should incorporate the industry standard P25 vocoder, which improves voice quality when communicating with P25 land mobile radios, while significantly enhancing PTT speed and enabling end-to-end encryption between smartphones and radios.
In addition to traditional P25 radio features, software applications should help agencies to better synchronize and orchestrate response by enabling key features such as presence awareness, geo-location and situational awareness for dispatch and officers. These visual features add more intelligence to the officer's communication experience, enhancing efficiency and safety.
While applications help support group communications for public-safety officials, there are many times when first responders also need to connect with agencies in surrounding areas that may not be operating on a shared system.
To support interagency communications, agencies are looking for multiband radios and LMR technology. These multiband radios deliver interoperable communications capabilities with neighboring jurisdictions by providing different frequency bands that are used throughout the multi-state system.
By including all available frequency bands in a single radio, agencies are able to collaborate during response situations.
Future of public-safety communications
Public safety users can look to the not-too-distant future and have a real understanding of enhanced communications capabilities that are coming. The combination of technologies and solutions — such as LTE, critical PTT applications to integrate commercial and private networks, and multiband radios — will keep their users connected.
The immediate and even longer-term future will see this crucial integration of modern LMR and LTE communications technology at work. By leveraging the power of LTE and key applications with multiband LMR, agencies essentially are showing how a nationwide interoperable communications system could operate. This real-world proving ground will be invaluable to the FirstNet organization as it completes its mandate to roll out the NPSBN in the coming years.