Interoperability Pushed Amid Latest Emergencies

ATLANTA -- Imagine having a portable radio at an emergency scene that will do as much, or more, than the smart phone you have clipped to your belt. That day is coming but technology and legislation have to catch up with the need.

A team of communications experts spoke at the International Association of Fire Chiefs' Fire-Rescue International conference about the proposed 700MHz broadband radio system for public safety use. It's touted to be the solution to true interoperability when the infrastructure is ready.

The class last week, titled "What's All This About 700MHz Broadband Communications," was moderated by Mary Doherty, director of business development at Harris RF Communications, a Florida-based communications equipment company producing wireless equipment for the government, defense and commercial applications.

Doherty said she's confident a broadband network dedicated to emergency services will happen because of the overwhelming need.

"There has never been as much consensus for something like this for public safety," Doherty said, noting that fire, police and EMS organizations often want disparate things.

The goal is to have nationwide interoperability supported by technology that actually works, she said, noting the federal government has promised between $11 and $13 billion to come up with the solution.

There are, however a few hurdles that must be overcome before any system can be implemented including, regulatory aspects, technology, funding and identifying the users' needs, Doherty said.

One of the other experts on the panel, Mike Duyck, chief of the Tualatin Valley (Ore.) Fire & Rescue department, said his primary concern for a broadband solution is making sure it works all the time, especially when an emergency happens.

"We saw what can happen when the East Coast had the earthquake last week," Duyck said. "The broadband system was overwhelmed instantly leaving it unusable for [emergency services.]"

Duyck said public safety officials will need to be the ones who "control the knob" when it comes to use and reliability that can be trusted.

"What we need in the future is a robust network that works, all the time," he said.

He also said he's excited about the power and information the system can provide to commanders at the scene. Having access to information on the internet, photos from the scene and global satellite positioning (GPS) are just some of the advantages a dedicated, robust public safety network promises.

"They say a picture is worth a thousand words," Duyck said. "Imagine what would it would be like to have that kind of information, before you arrive on the scene."

Paramedic Kevin McGinnis, who has been an emergency medical service provider since 1974, and a former director of EMS in Maine, also participated in the panel and said broadband holds great promise for treating patients.

While technology is a long way from the instruments used on Star Trek that can diagnose and heal people, McGinnis said having the ability to give doctors real time information, images and video of a patient could make a huge difference in patient outcomes.

That's particularly true in rural areas where providers don't always have lots of experience, may be trained only to EMT basic level and almost always have long transport times.

"Ninety eight percent of the communication we do is voice and it's been that way since the 1970s," McGinnis said. "...We make it work but we can do much better."

Cell phones have helped, but they're not the ultimate solution either, he said.

"When you are having your heart attack, you don't want a dropped call," he said.

Being able to send hospitals real time MRIs and CT scan information from the back of the ambulance would be a huge improvement for patient care, he said.

"Imagine knowing if it was bleed stroke or a clot stroke," McGinnis said. "It would help you get them to the right hospital quickly."

Yet another panelist in the classroom session was Glenn Cannon, Pennsylvania's director of emergency management.

As Hurricane Irene was bearing down on the East Coast, Cannon, who was talking with federal authorities just before it was his turn to speak, said public safety broadband was more than a pipe dream, it's a necessity.

"We have tons of 800 narrow band systems, but we still don't have interoperability," Cannon said. "When I move resources from west to east, like I am this weekend, I need that."

Cannon said he's a little frustrated that the general public, armed with smart phones, have more capabilities than emergency services with high powered radios and far greater needs for the technologies.

Another frustration for Cannon is the fact, he believes, that infrastructure for a broadband for emergency services already exists, but the legislation and political will to make it all link together isn't there.

"We could probably do it without putting up another single antenna," he said.

Cannon sees little or no reason why emergency services can't have it right now.

"Communications is the backbone of emergency services," he said. "When communications systems fail, people die."