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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Safety first: Modern first responder communications start locally

As a nation, we are much safer, stronger and better prepared than we were a decade ago, but recent events demonstrate threats to our country have evolved and force our local public-safety agencies to rise to a new level.

Unexpected natural disasters that include the wildfires in California and the hurricanes that battered Texas and Florida have tested our communities and first responders again and again. Foreign cyber attacks on cities like Atlanta illustrate threats to critical infrastructure on a widespread scale. Tragic, man-made crises, such as the violent shootings in Las Vegas and Parkland, Fla., show us what can happen to communities in mere minutes.

While disasters do not exist in isolation, and the whole nation will provide support when needed, most disasters begin, end and are managed at the local level. To protect citizens, local communities must plan for potential crisis scenarios -- determine what makes their city vulnerable, if and how crises can be prevented, how they can be mitigated and how officials will respond and communicate instructions.  

Public-safety agencies and municipalities do have control over their response to natural disasters and crisis situations. To better protect citizens and respond to the increase and complexity of threats, agencies should consider modernizing their emergency communications systems to become faster, more coordinated and intelligent.

Improving first responder communications at the local level

In cities and towns all across the country, local residents depend on first responders in times of emergency. To do their jobs, responders must access and share information as quickly and efficiently as possible, regardless of the disaster situation.

Counties and municipalities -- many of which are operating under tight budgets -- must choose wisely when making investments in communications technology for police, fire and emergency medical services. Any agency thinking about transforming its communications systems must consider what the transition looks like from an operations standpoint, evaluate the associated costs or total cost of ownership and outline the desired impact.

Public safety agencies should consider technology that improves efficiency, safety and response times, and has staying power to be relevant in the years to come.

Meeting modern first responder needs

First responder technology is evolving to meet modern threats and will increasingly use more internet-of-things sensors or devices, such as body-worn cameras. Drones, robots and video surveillance technology can also be used to prevent and respond to threats, while helping protect law enforcement officers.  Reliable connections between these devices and officers in the field ensure critical information gets sent back to headquarters, to mobile command stations  and to other officers.

Firefighters also require constant connectivity for mission critical applications. Data from GPS navigation, helmet cams or biosensors can be sent back to the station or shared with other responders. Paramedics can transmit real-time data on a patient to a local hospital to speed treatment.

Connectivity considerations

Modern public safety response requires constant, reliable connectivity whether first responders are on foot, in-vehicle, on the scene of an accident or back at the station. It also requires interagency teamwork, information sharing, collaboration tools and mobility at all times. Agencies looking to modernize their communications systems and connectivity should consider the following:

Comprehensive mobility: Routers for vehicles, IoT devices, pop-up branch locations and stations that connect to gigabit-class LTE networks are a key component of police, fire and EMS infrastructures. They enable access to mission-critical applications from vehicles in remote locations and through a central hub. With reliable connectivity, responders can safely and effectively perform their jobs and be ready to move fast should an emergency strike. 

Interoperability: Communications systems and routers should have the option to connect to national public-safety broadband networks, which helps to improve first responders’ efficiency, safety and response times by enabling better field and interagency coordination using connected devices and applications. Routers with dual-sim capabilities can switch back and forth between carriers when optimal or necessary to keep networks up and running.

Security: More connected devices mean a higher risk of a dangerous security breach. Agencies should look for solutions that incorporate comprehensive intrusion protection systems and intrusion detection systems, which protect sensitive data, as well as secure web filtering and stateful firewalls built into devices. Also, only devices that are compliant with FIPS 140-2 and the Criminal Justice Information Services requirements should be considered for first responder applications. 

Cloud management: With advances in cloud management, IT departments in public-safety agencies can save valuable time and money – and keep first responders out in the field – by performing critical management functions remotely from a cloud-based management platform.

Rugged hardware: First responders depend on ruggedized hardware for a resilient network that will hold up in the harsh environments they face daily.   

Putting technology to the test

Boise’s Police Department recently modernized the connectivity of its fleet of vehicles, enabling more officers to stay out in the field. Within a year, the technology paid for itself due to the time and cost savings from simplified IT management, reduced time and resources.

The Indianapolis Fire Department recently solved major connectivity issues it was having on vehicles by switching to ruggedized hardware built for vehicles and harsh conditions. After initial successes, they began slowly rolling out and expanding services to additional vehicles.

Effective emergency response requires a readiness to act. In today’s world, public-safety agencies can’t get away with having outdated technologies to keep their communities safe.  Public-safety and communications infrastructures must be modern, connected and future-proof.

About the Author

Estee Woods is director of public sector & public safety marketing at Cradlepoint.

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