First responders test links to future public safety net

First responders test future public safety net

When a vehicle turned up where it shouldn’t have during a ski competition in Colorado in February, new mobile broadband technology made the difference between a scramble by police to locate the vehicle and a quick, more targeted search from first responders.

Using new LTE technology set up for the event, an officer put a marker on a map noting the vehicle’s location and then sent a screenshot of the map to about 200 other safety officials in the area connected to the network via mobile devices.

“We had officers from out of the city area helping us, and rather than having to ask directions on the radio or look at their Google maps and figure out how to get there, they had that map sent over the LTE network and were able to respond to the scene,” said Jennifer Kirkland, operations support supervisor at the Vail, Colo., Public Safety Communications Center. “It saved time and resources.”

The event in Vail was the 2015 International Ski Federation’s Alpine World Ski Championship, where Colorado public-safety agencies gathered to test drive the First Responder Network Authority’s (FirstNet) 700 MHz Band Class 14 Public Safety Long Term Evolution (LTE) Demonstration Network.

The FirstNet wireless broadband network was created in 2012 by Congress in an effort to build the first high-speed, nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety. Construction of the network requires each state to have radio-based networking gear that can connect to FirstNet’s network core.

In Vail, first responders were test-driving a range of applications supported the wireless LTE network, including video surveillance, situational awareness and photo applications.

In fact, the network proved to be critical to public safety officials’ ability to do their jobs when commercial networks faltered in handling the digital crush of more than 150,000 people at the event.

“The [LTE] network performed exceptionally well,” said Brian Shepherd, broadband program manager at the Colorado Office of Information Technology. “When commercial networks did degrade just due to multiple thousands of people in a one block square radius, we saw the public safety network remain stable, and we were able to provide good communications from Beaver Creek to Vail, which has historically been a challenge.”

The Eagle County, Colo., Sheriff’s Department and the Vail police and fire departments were involved in the broadband test, which was authorized for non-mission-critical uses. Meanwhile, networking firms brought in various components of  the network.

Sonim Technologies, a supplier of ultra-rugged mobile solutions provided 35 ruggedized devices for use in the demo, while up to 200 responders and public safety officers used their personal devices to access the network via Wi-Fi hot spot. In addition, four 2-by-3-foot General Dynamics eNodeB boxes were integrated into the nodes of a distributed  antenna system that wireless infrastructure firm Crown Castle had recently deployed in Vail.

 “We essentially just integrated the Band Class 14 infrastructure into the current distributed antenna system that Crown Castle owns and operates,” Shepherd said. “Our goal was just to get devices into hands of end users and test the overall technology through the two-week-long event.”

For the first time, responders were able to use enhanced video surveillance from five surveillance cameras on Band Class 14, as well as upload photographs and conduct situational awareness and mapping.

To provide capacity at the race’s finish line in Beaver Creek, a remote area that sits 8,000 feet above sea level in a topography known for poor network communications, the team deployed a mobile cell on wheels.

Push-to-talk was also integrated with the land mobile radio network that all responders accessed so the two networks could communicate. “They really liked the push-to-talk functionality, which essentially turned a smart phone into almost a two-way radio,” Shepherd said.

First responders also liked the situational awareness application enabling them to locate each other on maps. Typically, local public safety managers use automatic vehicle location on their computer-aided dispatch systems, but that shows only vehicles’ position, Kirkland said.

“In this event, the officers were on foot for the vast majority of the time, so we had an awareness of their location that we wouldn’t have had without it,” said Kirkland, who enabled her personal device for use from a dispatcher’s perspective. “It was great to be able to see where our responders were on a map. It was nice to be able to push to talk to them if I needed to. From a dispatch perspective, knowing where the officers and responders were and having that situational awareness was fantastic.”

Training first responders to use the devices was easy, and they were up and running quickly, she added. “The end users – our police and firefighters – really, really enjoyed it.”

Dwight Henninger, Vail’s police chief, said that it’s usually difficult to make a simple phone call from the race site. “What we’ve been able to accomplish this week with really having great, comfortable technology that we need to share data back and forth…has been really positive,” he said.

The idea for the demonstration first arose from Vail’s police chief in June 2014, and the green light for it came from FirstNet and the Federal Communications Commission, on Oct. 16. Strategy work began in November, and “we really stood the network up in about two to three weeks,” Shepherd said.

Looking ahead, Shepherd said he wants to get approval from FirstNet to make Colorado’s special temporary authorization to use the Band 14 permanent.

“One of the key things we saw from the demonstration network is the immediate need for this,” Shepherd said. “I think a lot of us in the states have been talking for a while about how this type of network would be a nice-to-have thing. I think one of the key takeaways, from my perspective, is that this technology is pretty much a need-to-have right now.”

Still, some kinks would need to be worked out. For instance, police officers can’t perform crowd control duties while looking at a smart phone, said Kim Coleman Madsen, FirstNet Colorado public safety broadband manager. Instead, two officers would be needed: One to watch the crowd and the other the phone. Not to mention the negative response the public would have to officers staring at mobile devices, she added. “The assumption is maybe he’s looking at the Internet,” Coleman Madsen said.

Another area for further investigation is how this technology could replace current voice communication among first responders, she said. “We had really positive feedback wanting to use the technology in place of their mission-critical voice, which we would not encourage or support at this point.”

Right now, the ball is in FirstNet’s court, Shepherd said. In January, the state attended a FirstNet Initial Consultation Meeting at which 120 representatives met with FirstNet officials to talk about planning the nationwide public safety broadband network (NPSBN).

“My overall takeaway is that Colorado is dedicated and committed to making the NPSBN a success in their state,” Dave Buchanan, the authority’s director of state consultation, wrote in a blog post


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