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The future of emergency communications

01 Aug 2011

Recent natural disasters in New Zealand and Australia have reinforced the critical role technology plays in supporting our emergency services personnel in the moments that matter the most, and specifically, the ability to communicate seamlessly. During the Christchurch earthquakes, rescue teams from New Zealand, Australia and around the world were able to share a digital radio resource to co-ordinate rescue efforts. The aftermath of a crisis can serve as an important time for reflection on how technology can be improved and enhanced into the future, and fortunately, innovation in this critical sector is continuing to accelerate at a rapid pace. For example, the advent of IP (Internet Protocol) networks, and the rapid delivery of rich multimedia content such as video and data, promises to continue to enrich and improve safety communications over the next few years.But with any advancement comes caveats. The nature of emergency services communications is such that anything that distracts from the mission can be dangerous. So the challenge for communication providers and public safety agencies alike is how to best manage and deliver unquestionably powerful data without compromising safety, security or time-to-respond.If not properly managed, this flood of new information could overwhelm – indeed jeopardise – a potentially life-threatening mission. Mission-critical coreAt the heart of any next-generation emergency communications system is the mission-critical core, a secure and hardened Land Mobile Radio (LMR) network. Mission critical LMR networks, which primarily carry voice and low-bandwidth data, have been optimised for first respondent use, and today make up the communications backbone of many public safety and emergency services organisations around the world. The standards they are based on, such as Project 25 and TETRA, are used across Australia and New Zealand today and have also been the focal point of the industry’s R&D efforts over several decades.For example, at Motorola Solutions, a key R&D focus area has been high velocity human factors, the study of human performance in mission-critical scenarios such as emergency rescue, crime response and disaster management. This research has ensured emergency service technology use remains second nature to first responders, enabling them to focus on the mission at hand, rather than on operating technology.Industry investment in LMR has not been insignificant, and its mission-critical architecture makes it the most appropriate technology for public safety voice communications today. That said, as public safety agencies increasingly begin to use and rely on multimedia and video applications in their communications, new next-generation solutions will need to be incorporated to help responders evolve their systems and succeed.Imagine being able to add real-time video to first responder communications, coupled with intelligent solutions that analyse the video and share it between command centres and mobile teams to heighten response awareness.These new public safety solutions will require a new kind of service that links together various platforms for coordinated communications regardless of device, such as two-way radios, cellular phones or handheld computers.Fortunately, the industry finds itself on the cusp of the next-wave of mobile broadband communications technology.Based on LTE (Long Term Evolution) technology, mobile broadband networks will debut in the public domain later this year, and promise a shift in the way high-speed broadband content is delivered over mobile wireless networks.The dilemma for public safety agencies is that LTE is not optimised for voice traffic, and, in fact, the base LTE spec is not intended to carry (traditional) voice traffic at all. LTE does have the potential to carry commercial voice traffic, but only on a ‘best effort’ basis. It will be several years, if at all, before standards bodies can ensure the same functionalities inherent to LMR networks – low latency, one-to-many broadcast, talk groups and talk-around, agency partitioning, guaranteed coverage and capacity – are baked into a hardened LTE standard.Advances in mobile broadband, interoperability, advanced devices, workforce mobility, video security and integrated command will ultimately deliver a stream of next-generation information services that can help emergency response agencies execute more efficiently and more safely.Applications todayDespite the promise, it will be a wait of several years before providers can offer an end-to-end all-IP public safety communications network, but the outcome is achievable if an organisation’s core infrastructure is based on an architecture and a framework that follows a ‘building block’ approach.   This allows multiple entry points for migrating to next generation public safety, all while building on existing mission-critical investments.  In the meantime, there are different ways organisations are already supplementing their mission-critical LMR networks with next generation applications, including video.Location awareness is a good example. A police officer carrying a GPS-enabled handset can be fed live information from a central database about his location, so he knows if he’s entering a dangerous area, and is advised to call for backup before doing so. Similar technology is already used by progressive organisations in New Zealand such as councils and security companies on the Kor Kor network, which is owned and operated by Kordia. While the mission-critical LMR core remains the heart of the network, increasingly rich applications are being introduced to the mix, either as low-level data feeds, or via public mobile networks that extend the reach of the network by hundreds of thousands of kilometres.This use of data – and particularly video data – is motivating a shift in organisations’ priorities, which will become more relevant as these technologies become ingrained in everyday use. Today, voice is given undisputed priority, which explains the strict compliance to industry-leading standards such as P25 in all but the least critical of applications. But as video becomes more relevant (and useful), data will be given equal priority to voice, and so the technology needs to be able to cater for that.The key to transformation is relevance, again particularly with video. Without location intelligence it would be difficult for an operator to sort through dozens, even hundreds of different video feeds on the network and assign priority to each one. This is where intelligent applications, such as video analytics, come into play. Without video analytics, officers must process the raw video, and formulate intelligence from it, making the work time-consuming.The next step for the successful migration to next-generation communications is therefore integration: between legacy networks and technologies, current technologies and next-generation networks, private radio networks and public services, and even video analytics and CAD (computer-aided dispatch) systems. Ultimately, the intelligence of the system stands or falls by the ability of the human operator to sort through the information at his disposal; but it’s the integration between the different systems that will ensure only relevant information – be it a distress call or live video link – is captured, sent and used to good effect. The spectrum debateA key issue in ongoing discussions on next generation solutions is the availability of the spectrum necessary for the secure delivery of high-speed broadband data. Within New Zealand, and in many countries around the world, the spectrum known as the 700MHz block, or the ’digital dividend’ is being seen as the logical place for LTE networks. The allocation of spectrum in this block is currently a highly contentious issue, with commercial carriers looking to secure a slice for the roll-out of LTE networks, and emergency service organisations asking for dedicated Government allocations for public safety use.What is certain is that the future of next-generation public safety communications is not homogenous. There will be different applications for different technologies, be they the provision of an end-to-end private network, or a collaborative effort between private and public suppliers. The only constant is – and will remain so – the mission-critical core. With it comes to the guarantee of a communications system set up with the appropriate level of reliability, integrity and effectiveness to save lives in the moments that matter the most.