responder using cell phone

Getting to real-time responder communications

Even as public safety communications networks move toward greater interoperability – especially with the rollout of the FirstNet national public safety broadband network – responders still face many challenges sharing basic information, let alone the real-time data from sensors, networked cameras and messaging applications.

Technology issues, specifically the lack of interoperability for data formats and data access solutions, will prevent public safety users from leveraging the new technologies coming to market, according to a recent report from the National Institute of Standards and Technology on roadblocks that must be addressed before public safety agencies can seamlessly share data.

Responders should be able to swap files, access common applications and eventually achieve two-way data exchange, NIST said in its June 19 report, titled "Interoperability of real-time public safety data: Challenges and possible future states." Data exchange standards for geolocation information, for example, will ensure public safety agencies using different software can receive and understand location data from responders on the scene.

Lack of standards also hinders assigning and enforcing the access responders have to data, making it difficult to securely share information among responders and across agencies.  Interoperable access control would enable single sign-on and even evaluate credentials of new users on the fly, allowing responders to get the data they need based on their role, the incident or data type. This federated identity, credentialing and access management (ICAM) is key to interagency data sharing interoperability.

The technology issues are complicated by economic and data governance considerations. The monetary value of standardization is difficult to quantify, but "non-interoperable components lend themselves to cost redundancies," NIST said. Proprietary end-to-end solutions may provide more advanced capabilities, but they can discourage interoperability and result in vendor lock-in. Public safety organizations must find a "balance between standardized data sharing functionality and product-specific innovations," the report said.

Since public safety agencies are essentially early adopters of many data sharing technologies, there are few guidelines or best practices to help them integrate new technologies into their current operations or cooperate with partner agencies. Yet data sharing policies are critical for establishing security requirements and complying with privacy and transparency regulations.

NIST offered five steps public safety agencies can take to overcome these challenges and accelerate data sharing interoperability:

  1. Leverage procurement requirements by including specifications for data sharing technologies, including data exchange standards where appropriate.
  2. Participate in solution development by offering the public safety user perspective to groups working on ICAM standards.
  3. Develop interagency data sharing partnerships to identify goals, model use cases and develop requirements and metrics.
  4. Collaborate with the broader public safety community, including state and federal bodies, research and industry groups as well as standards developing organizations.
  5. Analyze agency data use and sharing patterns to make the case for investments in data sharing resources.

NIST also urged the public safety community at large to prioritize funding for data integration tools and data sharing governance work and establish a communitywide public safety data sharing task force to develop governance resources and an interoperability framework.

"While agencies are in the early stages of adopting advanced data sharing capabilities, the time is ripe for the public safety community to collectively consider the possible approaches to solving this challenge and chart a path towards a desired future state," NIST said. "By simultaneously tackling the technical, governance, and economic aspects of data sharing interoperability, the public safety community has the opportunity to maximize the benefits made possible by the creation of a nationwide public safety broadband network."

Read the full report here.

About the Author

Susan Miller is executive editor at GCN.

Over a career spent in tech media, Miller has worked in editorial, print production and online, starting on the copy desk at IDG’s ComputerWorld, moving to print production for Federal Computer Week and later helping launch websites and email newsletter delivery for FCW. After a turn at Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, where she worked to promote technology-based economic development, she rejoined what was to become 1105 Media in 2004, eventually managing content and production for all the company's government-focused websites. Miller shifted back to editorial in 2012, when she began working with GCN.

Miller has a BA and MA from West Chester University and did Ph.D. work in English at the University of Delaware.

Connect with Susan at smiller@gcn.com or @sjaymiller.

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