July Forum: 700 MHz Broadband For Mission-Critical Public Safety Data

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!” While this phrase often makes us think of a scam or sparks memories of timeshare-property pressure sales, in this case it is very true. Canadian emergency responders have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to obtain 700 MHz broadband spectrum from Industry Canada. This will allow responders the needed spectrum to transfer mission critical data to and from scenes. Once this spectrum is gone, it will be gone forever.

Partnerships in the field of emergency response and management are critical – and never more than in today’s challenging economic times. With that in mind, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP), Canadian Fire Chiefs Association (CFCA) and Emergency Medical Services Chiefs of Canada (EMSCC) are leading the charge for a nationwide public safety broadband system for mission critical data.

With advances in technology, Canadian responder agencies will have an increasing need to access data and video networks during all emergency incidents. Law enforcement agencies will need access to streaming video, surveillance networks capable of identifying known terrorists through the use of video analytics, criminal records, automated license plate recognition and biometric technologies including mobile fingerprint and iris identification to prevent and respond to criminal activities. Fire services will need access to building blue prints, in-building 3D, and personal health-monitoring sensors and GPS tracking systems for their staff in order to save lives. Emergency medical services will need access to telemedicine, high-resolution video and ultrasound, and patient records to reduce the time it takes to deliver medical services at the scene of an incident such as a car crash on a highway.

In addition to profession-specific technology, these agencies will require information sharing capabilities in real time for all unified responses. Critical-infrastructure service providers will need to be able to coordinate their responses to restore power and telecommunications services during large-scale incidents. Governments at all levels across Canada and cross-border with our U.S. counterparts need access to situational awareness information, including from wireless sensors (i.e., flood data) during large-scale incidents to coordinate mitigation, response and recovery efforts. Obviously, the key here, as always, is the planning phase that we are just commencing now.

All these applications and services depend greatly on the amount of spectrum that is available for public safety broadband services – they require considerable bandwidth and speed that is currently not available. Future networks must be built with public safety requirements in mind.

On Dec. 8, 2010, during the Fourth Canadian Public Safety Interoperability Workshop, the presidents of Canada’s three major chiefs associations announced the creation of the Tri-Services Special Purpose Committee on 700 MHz Broadband for Mission-Critical Public Safety Data. The creation of the committee is in direct response to Industry Canada’s recent announcement of public consultations on the use of the 700 MHz band by commercial mobile services.

They have appointed three representatives to the committee: I am representing the EMSCC and I am privileged to be working alongside two very experienced colleagues from partner agencies and associations, Superintendent Bill Moore of the Halifax Regional Police and the CACP and Division Chief Mike Sullivan of the Ottawa Fire Service, representing the CAFC. Together, the three of us have set in motion a mechanism to monitor and advise on the issue, inform stakeholders and identify responder spectrum needs and potential opportunities.

The issue is that Canada’s radio spectrum regulator, Industry Canada, has opened consultations on the 700 MHz broadband allocations (the result of spectrum availability due to the transition from analog television to digital) that will ultimately affect public safety agencies’ ability to deploy mission critical data well into the future. The chiefs’ associations developed a joint position on the issue and have been working with emergency management partners, including many provincial emergency management offices, to determine the exact needs and the optimal use of the soon-to-be-available spectrum.

This is truly a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, not just in Canada, but in the United States and beyond. Inaction poses significant risk as the upcoming allocation of spectrum will directly impact responder agencies’ and government’s ability to fulfill their most important mission over the coming decades. The current bandwidth is the waterfront property that everyone wants.

Aug. 30, 2011, marks the transition from analog TV to digital in Canada, freeing up spectrum for potential use by public safety. Emergency responder agencies are looking for 20 MHz to be allocated to broadband services (10 plus 10), 8 MHz of that 20 would come from the existing 24 MHz allocation to public safety. We are looking for a total of 36 MHz; these figures include the 4 MHz of guardbands within the narrowband block that have limited usefulness. Many private and public agencies are also vying for the additional (and very valuable) spectrum, and Industry Canada (our nation’s spectrum regulator) opened consultations on the 700 MHz broadband allocations on Nov. 30, 2010 (consultations closed Feb. 28, 2011). We had a very limited time to submit our response to Industry Canada and we are continuing to convince government that the best place for this spectrum is in the hands of responders!

In order to complete our response the committee met with stakeholders from across the country. After compiling all of our findings, we came up with the main themes in our response: to have Industry Canada assign the full 20 MHz for public safety broadband use; that we coordinate the 700 MHz Canadian public broadband spectrum with the U.S.; that the governance of the 20 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum for public safety for broadband use must reside with public safety stakeholders; and that current commercial systems will not meet the mission-critical requirements of our public safety community.

As the consultation response period closed, there were 88 responses to Industry Canada: 55 from companies and organizations, four from the federal government, 23 from provincial and municipal governments and six from private individuals. Overall, the Tri-Services and public safety stakeholders were pleased to see that the majority of responses to the consultation acknowledged the need to designate a portion of 700 MHz spectrum to be dedicated for public safety use.

Of the respondents, 44 advocated harmonizing with the U.S., 26 called for 20 MHz of spectrum to be dedicated to public safety, seven called for only 10 MHz of spectrum to be dedicated to public safety, six called for 10 MHz of spectrum to be dedicated to public safety now plus a possible additional 10 MHz after D Block assigned in the U.S. and three called for zero MHz dedicated to public safety. The remaining responses made no mention of public safety. Of note, one telecommunications company acknowledged the need to designate a portion of 700 MHz spectrum to be dedicated for public safety use.

In the U.S., a similar digital TV transition was accomplished on June 12, 2009. The U.S. spectrum regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has already dedicated 10 MHz to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust. Collectively, U.S. public safety agencies are now fighting for a second 10 MHz block in the critical band of 700 MHz spectrum known as the D Block. The FCC recently announced that the D Block may be sold at auction for commercial purposes instead of being allocated to public safety (currently under consideration by Congress). This move has caused U.S. counterparts to mobilize quickly on what is arguably the most important issue U.S. law enforcement, fire and EMS officials have faced in decades. Canadian responders may be faced with the same challenge.

Today, Canadian public safety entities use existing commercial networks for their voice and data needs. Some 700 MHz narrow- and wide-band spectrum is already dedicated to public safety in Canada for voice and some low-speed data use. However, securing dedicated spectrum for broadband applications for public safety will ensure wireless broadband networks (a system of systems across the country) can be built with the needs of public safety in mind moving forward. Canadian police, fire, EMS and other emergency professionals must have access to modern, reliable, and robust communications capabilities, including high speed data and video, to communicate with each other across agencies and jurisdictions during emergencies and during day-to-day operations. Emergency responders must stop being a costumer that simply takes a number and waits for service when bad things happen. Responders need to be the owners and in control over who has access to this spectrum and when. Responders should not have to compete for bandwidth with the teenager who is sending live video to all of his friends of the very emergency responders are dealing with. There is an expectation that when things go wrong responder can communicate within their agencies as well as with their partners in the community.

Here are three examples of this technology at work to help save lives:

• Firefighters from New Brunswick are asked to fly to British Columbia (or California or Australia) to help fight wildfires. The wireless device (future versions that are hardened and intrinsically safe) they use at home immediately connects to the 700 MHz system in British Columbia (or wherever), authenticates them as a public safety user and gives them full broadband access to mission-critical data, including GIS location tracking, situational awareness information about where the fires are located (based on access to wireless sensors that have been deployed), and full topographical and/or satellite maps.

• Paramedics are called to the scene of a mass-casualty event along the Washington State-British Columbia border. British Columbia incident commanders quickly realize that they require assistance from their U.S. counterparts and deploy wireless patient-care telemetry devices that connect via the 700 MHz Broadband network. Because the network was built using the same spectrum and standards, the U.S. responders can immediately get access the information required (as authorized by previous governance and standard operating procedures) to successfully respond to this joint operation.

• Police are called to an active-shooter situation at a local college. Based on broadband access to the 700 MHz network, they immediately deploy three teams into the school via three different entry points. 3D in-building location and tracking devices (originally spearheaded by the fire community) allow team leaders, the local incident commander and headquarters to be aware of one another’s location. They then access the IP-based speaker/microphone system in the college, overlay sounds on the building floor plan and immediately identify victim/suspect location information. Simultaneously, fire and paramedic teams responding have (as authorized) access to the data to begin planning their response.

The issue of spectrum and possible nationwide broadband network(s) is very complex and potentially expensive, and at this point Canadian responders have more questions than answers. What is known is that dedicated public safety spectrum for the creation of interoperable wireless broadband networks for data and video transmissions is the 21st century vision for communications system for Canada’s responders. Availability of such networks responds directly to the ministers’ responsible for emergency management announcement on Jan. 26, 2011, about the approval of the new Communications Interoperability Strategy and Action Plan for Canada. One of the top priorities outlined in this excellent, cooperatively built strategy is that of 700 MHz broadband. In fact, in the Ministers’ Communicae they stated: “…the Ministers discussed the current consultation related to the 700 MHz broadband spectrum and securing a portion for the use of emergency responders for public safety and security purposes. Provincial and territorial ministers expressed support for this approach as it offers significant interoperability enhancement potential. The use of the 700 MHz spectrum would link public safety and security stakeholder communities across Canada and along the Canada-U.S. border, while promoting innovation and Canada’s digital economy.”

The allocation of 700 MHz spectrum truly represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that ties directly to community and responder safety, innovation and the health of Canada’s digital economy. Stakeholders and citizens are encouraged to get informed and put this issue on your organization’s and government’s radar; inform your boards, municipalities, provincial/territorial governments and other governing bodies that spectrum allocations will have a significant impact on public safety in Canada; and work with tri-services colleagues and others to advocate a strong voice for public safety in advance of spectrum allocations. For more information on the Tri-Services Special Purpose Committee’s work on the 700 MHz Broadband for Mission Critical Public Safety Data, please visit www.action700.ca.

Pascal Rodier


British Columbia Ambulance Service

Vancouver, British Columbia

The writer was one of the original planners and British Columbia Ambulance Service project team leader of the province-wide expansion of the Combined Events Radio Project (CERP). He was a part of the national working group that wrote the Communications Interoperability Strategy for Canada and the Communications Interoperability Action Plan for Canada. Also, he is the EMSCC representative and co-chair of the Tri-Services Special Purpose Committee on 700 MHz Broadband for Mission-Critical Public Safety Data. He may be reached at pascal.rodier@bcas.ca.

“Old Lady” Pumps Again

The April edition of Firehouse® Magazine featured my article “The Burning Questions of Slavery and Secession: 150 Years Ago, the Volunteer Fire Companies of Frederick, MD, Responded to the Calls,” which included information about “Old Lady,” a hand-tub pumper that fought the Frederick, MD, courthouse fire in 1861. Since publication of the article, not only was “Old Lady” rehabbed into pumping condition, she was able to throw water on the former Frederick County courthouse at the re-creation of the event held May 1, 2011 – the first time she pumped in 100 years.

Citizens of Frederick, including Mayor Randy McClement and Alderwomen Shelly Aloi and Kelly Russell, participated in a community bucket brigade to fill the tub of water to supply “Old Lady.” Bright-red buckets were donated by the local Firehouse Subs franchise. Members of the United Fire Company No. 3 and Independent Hose Company No. 1 joined forces to provide the manpower to pump the water.

Clarence E. (Chip) Jewell III

Assistant Chief

Libertytown Vol. Fire Dept.


Department of Emergency Communications

Division of Emergency Management

Frederick, MD