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Leveraging Broadband Communications to Improve Public Safety

Notes From the Field
Date Published
September 23, 2019

Houston is a worldwide leader in the production of petrochemicals with a number of companies along the east side of the city. Working in public safety, we’re always mindful of how to be proactive in protecting the community should a fire or other emergency occur at one of these plants.

One option we’ve been considering is an environmental sensor network coupled with live video streams to monitor the conditions surrounding these plants. For example, if there is a threat of a hurricane, we can have data from the sensors and video keeping us informed up to the minute. If we sense something isn’t quite right, we can be proactive and send that data to the plant’s emergency management team or start rolling out first responders to prevent a larger disaster from happening.

This is a very exciting proposition, but one that wouldn’t be possible without access to a broadband network that enables visual information sharing, an area where traditional public safety radio communication networks fall short.

In Houston, we’ve been working to improve public safety from a connectivity standpoint since 2015 with the Band 14 LTE network, which is now more commonly known as the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet). Harris County was one of the original five first builders piloting band 14 deployments to test broadband in public safety. Through the Band 14 implementation pilot, we completed a network that covered 1,800 square miles of Harris County and improved connectivity for first responders. Across the county, we established 40 cell sites and placed modems into some patrol vehicles, turning them into mobile hotspots.

Learn more about FirstNet.

Lessons Learned

During the pilot, we tried to push broadband connectivity concepts further as we tested Band 14 at special events throughout Harris County, including the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and Super Bowl LI.

We’ve learned a lot from these tests – which we’ve profiled in a pair of white papers describing our experiences at the Super Bowl and Rodeo.

One issue we’ve narrowed in on is how to define “information architecture” and how to identify who needs to receive specific information. The way traditional radio and dispatching has trained us is that one person dispenses information to many, potentially thousands of people listening. With voice communication, this is an effective and efficient way to disperse critical information. Those listening in are able to pick out relevant information to them and take action as needed.

When we replicated this methodology in a data sharing scenario, it did not work as well. To replicate a traditional radio use case, we put responders in the same group chat which would allow them to exchange information such as messages, pictures, and videos. What we learned was that there is so much “noise” in the chat that critical information, like a photo of a suspicious vehicle or package, were getting lost. 

One advantage of structured data sharing is that you can look back in history in case you missed something, for example you can scroll back in a string of text messages.  In a large group chat scenario, with 20 to 30 or more responders, there is simply way too much information moving across, that it is easy to miss the message you need. This experience made everyone take a step back to try and understand what information is relevant, and to whom it is important. This is what led us to thinking about what we coined “information architecture.”

This is a complicated part of experimenting with and implementing broadband technology and solutions, but these networks and solutions can positively impact the way public safety does business and promote interoperability. Yes, P25 exists as the standard for mission critical voice communication, but with the way it has been implemented across the country, there’s no true interoperability.

Across public safety, agencies really should start thinking about what it means for them to be interoperable. Important questions should be asked and discussed. For example: what are we going to share and who are we going to share it with?

Setting Standards

One of the challenges I see in the whole conversation around transitioning to a broadband network such as FirstNet is that there are no solution standards in place. One of the exciting promises of the future is the idea that public safety will be able to choose application solutions from an App Store. Much like in our personal lives, this promises to give agencies flexibility to find the best solutions that fit their financial and operational needs. 

The challenge is with a lack of standards, this could lead us down the same path as P25. Each agency may choose to use different video sharing or push-to-talk apps based on their needs. Without any agreed upon industry standards, information may be shared in each agency, but it now becomes difficult to share it outside of the agency, repeating the same issues we have today with P25 voice networks.

Consider emails. It doesn’t matter if you’re using an Android, iPhone, or any email app, when I send you an email, you get it on your phone or your computer, and you can interact with it. We need to think in these terms when it comes to information sharing in public safety. When it comes to push-to-talk, video sharing, or any other service, how can we get disparate application vendors to share the same information? Unless we have some sort of standards in place for solutions to be FirstNet-certified or public safety ready, the only other option is to tell everyone to use the same application. 

The reality is it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to ask the more than 200 agencies in Harris County to use the same solution. A solution that works for Harris County Sherriff’s Office may not work well for the Houston Police Department.

Industry may think standards is a dirty word, they worry it may hurt their ability to stand out, but I don’t think standardization will stop creativity. I think it will set a minimum standard of how we can share information and if we all agree to it, then developers can go above and beyond in terms of enhancing other capabilities.

Don’t Be Afraid of Change

Change can be difficult, especially in this instance as broadband offers something very different than traditional radio communications. Adopting all that broadband can offer leads to many complex questions. Questions exist such as what device, what solutions, how to share, policies, and more. While it is a lot of work, agencies across the country shouldn’t be afraid as the potential benefits can far outweigh the hard work up front. Agencies in large metro areas have had cellular connectivity for a long time. The rural agencies have struggled to get coverage over the years. Regardless of size and location, FirstNet will bring benefits across the board: rural agencies will finally get broadband accessibility and large metro areas will get incredible throughput.

There will be a day when we fully transition to a digital age and, to get there, agencies need to be thinking about how to use broadband networks and other resources to augment their current radio communications. There’s a huge learning curve ahead and now is the time to really start planning for it. Don’t be afraid to examine how you handle operations and consider how to leverage a broadband connection to improve those services.  Start to think about policies and procedures around issuing mobile/smart devices to officers, fire fighters on the fields. Talk to your IT departments about how these devices can be safely and securely managed to prevent cyber security issues.

Admittedly, one of the biggest elephants in the room is cost. While we have broadband connected in our patrol vehicles in Harris County, we do not currently provide mobile/smart devices to every officer in the field. It would be a huge cost burden to the agencies if we tried to do it and I feel that this may be a challenge that brings pause to many agencies. 

Nonetheless, I think there are cost savings opportunities through efficiency gains that new technology can bring. These savings can help offset some of the costs needed up front to implement the technology.

In these conversations about interoperability between agencies, I hope that we can sustain momentum and take advantage of this opportunity. A lot of agencies see broadband as connectivity for laptops in the car, but the application opportunities are endless. With broadband networks, there’s a lot of potential for us to get more creative about public safety.

For instance, the possibility of a network of environmental sensors near the petrochemical plants is just one way we are exploring our options.

It’s all very exciting, but everything doesn’t have to change on Day 1. As a public safety official, challenge yourself to think about conducting business differently than the way in which it has been done traditionally. There’s a lot more to gain by leveraging technology than what it is going to cost you.

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 thinking deeply about criminal justice issues.

Date Published: September 23, 2019