Tools & Technologies: “First Responder Friendly” Communications

Tactical interoperable communications is defined as the rapid provision of on-scene incident-based, mission-critical voice communications among all first-responder agencies ( i.e., fire, EMS and law enforcement), as appropriate for the incident. But, does...


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Tactical interoperable communications is defined as the rapid provision of on-scene incident-based, mission-critical voice communications among all first-responder agencies ( i.e., fire, EMS and law enforcement), as appropriate for the incident. But, does voice communications alone fulfill the true sense of total interoperability between agencies?

All of us affirm the critical nature of being able to voice communicate between agencies, but what about data? Moving data, whether textural, as in email and instant text messaging, or graphically, such as important documents, maps, photos and video, is critical to the command of an operation.

We live in a digital age and now even voice communications are moved digitally. Many of today’s telephone systems are IP based using VoIP (Voice-over-Internet Protocol) systems, commonly found today in small and large office environments. This permits even voice to now be converted to digital data packets, encrypted and transmitted via the Internet. But to make that happen, one must have access to the Internet. We have come to take that access for granted, even after only a short number of years since introduction of this amazing technology.

There are a number of ways to gain access or connectivity to the Internet. The most common connectivity sources include fiber optics, provided by your local telephone or cable provider; cellular, through data services such as 3G and rapidly developing 4G networks; and direct-access satellite. The latter is the most expensive option, but the only one that may be available following a man-made or natural disaster that cripples conventional infrastructure access. Satellite connectivity is available in two versions: BGAN and VSAT.

BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network) is the least expensive relative to hardware cost, but may be the most expensive relative to airtime cost. Plus, BGAN is very small, capable of fitting into a hand-carried case and therefore very portable. It can be successfully deployed most anywhere in the world and inside a vehicle windshield, if necessary, when wind is an issue. It can be operated off conventional 12vdc or 120vac sources. It is also limited to approximately 500 Kbps of data transmission, pretty much equal to that of a 3G network connection.

VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) costs much more for hardware. For vehicle-mounted systems, typically the dish size will be 1m to 1.2m, but can be as large a 1.8m. Auto-acquiring VSAT antennas are most popular and can achieve connectivity in five to not more than 10 minutes with the push of a button or two. The dish will require use of a separate modem, such as models manufactured by iDirect. Where large-scale disaster management is required, VSAT connectivity is critical, providing the ability to move up to 2 Mbps of data up and down, thus permitting multiple telephone voice transmission and movement of large packets of data.

So, we’ve got access to all this digital technology, but are we fully utilizing those available resources for mobile interoperable communications in and across all jurisdictions? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Why is not fully understood, but funding sources seems to be the prime reason. Another is the mistaken belief that fully interoperable communications systems are prohibitively expensive. However, that may be totally relative to the definition of expensive.

Today, systems such as those provided by VisionComms and others offer compact, technologically advanced systems at much less cost than less capable systems of yesterday. For instance, for under $150,000 a first-responder agency can acquire a system that will provide VSAT connectivity; a radio gateway that interconnects up to eight radio frequencies and patches those same radios to VoIP and/or cellular phones; a PBX server capable of handing up to 100 simultaneous calls; a WiFi network providing controlled wireless “hotspot” access by laptops, smartphones and remote wireless video cameras; 3G/4G connectivity; internal workstation networking; and three years of VoIP and VSAT subscriptions.

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