Today, young men and women throughout the country who have grown up with smartphones are becoming police officers and firefighters. Yet when they start their law enforcement career, they’re often confined to having their computer network inside their police car or fire truck.
Whenever they need to get out of the vehicle to do something, they always have to come back and re-enter their vehicle to finish the task at hand. Very few law enforcement officers actually use smartphones with police applications out in the field. But I think it’s time that we make that smartphone part of officers’ uniforms.
By leveraging the broadband networks available to us, we can eliminate the mobile data computer and router in a police car and replace it with the computer power of an officer’s smartphone. This is a program we’ll be piloting in Inglewood, Ca., starting in late 2019.
This pilot project still includes a keyboard and screen in the police car, but when the officer enters his or her vehicle, the smartphone and screen will sync up wirelessly. What you’ve done is eliminate the modem and router in the trunk, all of the wiring to an antenna at the top of the car, and the computer within the car.
We believe this could make life easier for our officers, while providing our agencies with a significant cost savings. It is one potential avenue to reducing the costs of converting to a broadband network and creating what I call the “connected cop.”
A Network Pioneer
Los Angeles County was one of the five early builders of the public safety broadband network, which is now known as FirstNet.
Congress created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) in 2012 to establish, operate, and maintain a broadband network for public safety. In 2017, FirstNet entered into a 25-year contract and public-private partnership with AT&T to build the network.
But our experience in this area started in 2009 when the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System (LA-RICS) was formed as a joint powers authority responsible for building and operating a public safety broadband data network and land mobile radio (LMR) system within Los Angeles County.
We began building data network sites to public safety grade-- that is, capable of surviving an earthquake or other disaster. We connected about 2,000 police cars and fire trucks by the time AT&T was awarded the FirstNet contract to build the National Public Safety Data Network in 2017. At that time, we entered into negotiations with AT&T and in July 2018, we transferred our network to AT&T for integration into the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network.
Today, Los Angeles County fire and sheriff’s departments are using FirstNet services, while a number of smaller agencies throughout the county have also signed up for FirstNet or are in negotiations to do so. In total, there are about 5,000 to 6,000 individual users throughout the county operating on, or upgrading to, the FirstNet platform, placing them among the 7,250 public safety agencies across the country who are operating on FirstNet. AT&T has been very open to building additional network sites in Los Angeles County to help eliminate some of the coverage gaps, so as that happens, I believe more agencies will be signing up.
While AT&T and FirstNet have a number of commitments in place with Los Angeles County first responders, initiating FirstNet services remains a challenge for some.
One of the biggest challenges for agencies in signing up is simply the financial expenses necessary for replacing the routers and modems that aren’t compatible with FirstNet. It’s not just buying new equipment, but it’s also paying someone to come in, pull out the old one, put in the new one, and then configure it.
There’s a cost to doing that, and for many agencies I’m familiar with, public safety has not really recovered since the financial crisis of 2008. It’s been a very slow recovery for many agencies. Previously, public safety may have been able to replace the routers more quickly, but now they’re waiting until the end of the technology’s lifecycle before replacing them.
This is prime example of why we’re excited about the model that we’ll be piloting in Inglewood this year. If the pilot is promising, this prototype should be commercially available in 2020 and could save us around $7,000 per police car.
For example, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has about 5,000 mobile data computer cars, so if we’re able to use this solution there, that could generate about $35 million in savings. Depending on the size of the agency, the “connected cop” solution could be a significant cost savings as they consider replacing their mobile data computers with the newest technology, be it smartphones or tablets.
Lastly, AT&T has done a lot of work surrounding the smartphone capabilities within FirstNet. Yet there are agencies still using the millions of mobile data computers out there on old routers. Those police and fire departments haven’t had the opportunity to upgrade. That remains a definite challenge of FirstNet which can easily be overcome if they would release useful apps that will run on mobile data computers. Today, most are Windows based.
Today, public safety has standard operating procedures, guidelines, mutual aid protocols, and incident command protocols in place for a land mobile radio system, so we know how to communicate, interoperate, and manage large scale events using voice communication.
But broadband is different. Broadband brings a whole new spectrum and data into play.
One topic we’ve been in contact with FirstNet on is establishing local governance of priority levels. For example, if all public safety agencies start on the same priority level, ahead of commercial users, you then have created a priority capability for those agencies that could conflict at a major event. But if law enforcement and fire agencies are given the ability to elevate their priority based on an emergency response, then local officials would be in control.
LA-RICS is building a governance system to bring everyone in public safety under the same standard operating procedures for data, so that we can all work together properly, just as we do with land-mobile radio. We’re in the infancy stages of developing these procedures and negotiating with AT&T to get this governance to sync up with the applications that will be available to FirstNet users.
One such application we’ve discussed with AT&T is their Incident Management tool, which provides FirstNet users some control to assign priority levels to first responders. Our feedback to FirstNet included a desire to see more automation within the switching of priority levels, but we continue to work with AT&T on enhancing the functionality of these FirstNet apps.
Overall, as agencies consider a move to FirstNet or to another broadband service, their primary concerns are generally cost and coverage. In terms of cost, most will find the monthly service cost pre-determined, and that’s most likely less expensive than a regular commercial carrier. If you want better coverage in your area, consider providing a space on a public safety cell tower or government property for a new LTE site and collect rent. The rent can help offset equipment costs.
In these discussions, though, it is important to recognize the great return on investment for public safety. For example, here in Los Angeles County, even in the event of an earthquake, public safety officials will still have access and ability to communicate on the broadband network. For agencies that don’t make that switch before a natural disaster, there may be instances where they become disconnected from the community, making an appropriate response more difficult.
About Notes From the Field
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ aims to address the critical questions of the criminal justice field, particularly at the state and local levels.
NIJ Director David Muhlhausen developed the Notes From the Field series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America’s streets today.
Notes From the Field is not a research-based publication. Instead, it presents lessons learned by on-the-ground criminal justice leaders, from years of experience and by thinking deeply about criminal justice issues.