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 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.

For under $25,000 smaller, man-portable systems are available that feature one-button sequential activation of the compact PBX server capable of handling up to 25 in-network telephone calls; WiFi network for laptop, smartphone and remote wireless camera connectivity; BGAN satellite antenna; and three years of VoIP and satellite subscription services. These types of systems can be transported in the trunk of a vehicle or the overhead bin of a commercial aircraft.

Many first-responder agencies may already own what they have classified as a mobile command and communications vehicle, but lack the full interoperable communications capability. The good news is that you don’t have to start all over. System refreshes can be a great value and easy to accomplish using existing vehicles and, many times, some of the existing components.

Large command and communications vehicles are not necessary unless the first-responder agency desires to provide a climate-controlled environment from which to conduct operations or to accommodate private meeting facilities. Space and power requirements for today’s communication technologies have become very small and require very little in the way of power consumption. A fully blown tactical interoperable communications system, such as the VSAT system described above, can easily fit into the back of a SUV, consuming less than 10RU of space (approximately 30 inches). The entire system can run off less than 500 watts of power, which means a simple inverter is all that is required.

Bottom line – there is good news if your agency still lacks full tactical interoperable communications capabilities. More advanced, lighter, more compact and far less expensive technologies are available today. That means you don’t have to be a large regional response team to take advantage of today’s technologies. Nor do you have to restrict operations to major disasters. Why wouldn’t you want to deploy interoperable communications even in the case of search operations for a single lost child? And, deployment should not necessitate a requirement for certified IT personnel.

Systems such as those introduced by VisionComms meet the mandate from DHS to provide communications systems that are “first responder friendly.” That’s how it should be – simple and quick to deploy. When the adrenaline is flowing and time is of essence, a system that is fully operational in five to 10 minutes should be the norm, not the exception.