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Navigating the Wild Wild West of Emerging Technologies for Public Safety

The North Carolina First Responder Emerging Technologies Program collaborates with the State’s first responder agencies to navigate the rapidly-changing technology landscape by helping to identify the problems to be addressed and leveraging relationships.
Notes From the Field
Date Published
April 20, 2020

The evolving world of technology is like the wild, wild west. Technology is being developed, rolled out, and used much faster than public safety’s ability to analyze not only the cost, but also the policy implications that come with it.

With that in mind, one of the biggest things first responders should focus on is defining the problem we’re trying to solve before exploring our technology options. Unfortunately, defining the problem can often be a problem in and of itself.

At times, agencies end up choosing their solution first and it’s not always clear how a new technology or tool is going to benefit them. It can be a common trap to fall into when we look at how quickly technology is evolving and what other agencies are doing. Sometimes we miss that first step of defining the problem before evaluating our different options and establishing benchmarks to measure our success in getting there.

That’s our goal here at the First Responder Emerging Technologies (FirstTech) program in North Carolina: to collaborate with first responders and define their problem before discussing possible solutions.

I think relationships often become the most important point in exploring new technologies, understanding them, and seeing how they can be implemented into various agencies. We try to be willing consultants to help agencies explore technologies, not only from a technological standpoint, but also in terms of policy implications, operational impacts, and financial considerations that may be associated with implementing a new technology.

A lot of times, we serve as partners to determine whether a consultancy firm is needed.

Helping Agencies with Broadband – Focusing on Applications, Not Networks

The broadband services used by first responders in North Carolina are a mixed bag. Verizon has traditionally been the primary choice of first responders, holding about 70 percent to 90 percent of the market, but the landscape is changing with the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet).[1]

Congress created 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.

The exact number of agencies in North Carolina that have made the switch to FirstNet is not something we keep track of here, rather we serve as subject-matter experts to help agencies pick the right carrier for them.

Regardless of the decision on a carrier – whether it’s FirstNet, Verizon, T-Mobile, or Sprint – from a user standpoint, I don’t care who our carrier is as long as the applications we need are working. What we are using are the applications, and I think one of the challenges we’re going to see from applications moving forward is their interoperability.

When we start talking about the interoperability of applications, there are a lot of different layers there. Are we just talking about using the same application, or are we talking about using the same application on the same server?

Text messaging is a good example of where some of this starts to break down. I may have your phone number, but if you’re using a different platform than I am, such as iMessage, SMS, or WhatsAPP, you may never receive my message.

There’s obviously a lot more to it than that, but applications are going to be a challenge moving forward. There are a lot of different options that our public safety community has access to and when an incident crosses jurisdictional boundaries, how do we handle aid coming to us from someone using different applications?

On top of this, we need to be concerned with how we handle information from these applications. How is the information shared between record management systems, who has access to this information, where is it being stored, and is it being transported in a manner that meets criminal justice standards? These are just a few examples, but they show how complicated the relationships between applications can be.

Right now, one of the biggest applications we’re trying to focus on are the push-to-talk applications. Public safety has a long memory, and we had pretty good success with the old Nextel push-to-talk system. Of course, that application was carrier integrated and only existed on one carrier, but there are a number of options today that are non-carrier specific that can operate on your phone.

This is where interoperability becomes a cha­llenge depending on the push-to-talk application in use. It’s an all or nothing stance where if all of my neighbors choose the same platform, then we’re going to be able to talk. But the minute one agency makes a different decision, then they’re on their own in terms of who they’re able to communicate with.

Right now, we’re really trying to evaluate which push-to-talk applications are appropriate for public safety.

What we’re doing with push-to-talk applications is a great example of the main focus of our program – instead of trying to recommend that everyone in North Carolina use one particular application we highlight some of the challenges and benefits of the applications we’ve evaluated.

We want to have a conversation with agencies and discuss every aspect of an application or new technology – both positive and negative. We don’t want to put out a document advocating for the use of a certain technology because everything is changing so quickly. By the time we evaluate something and prepare a document for release, the information may already be stale.

In addition to working with agencies directly as consultants, we try to lean on our relationships with agencies throughout the state. In some instances, we serve as a matchmaker, connecting departments throughout the state if one is pursuing a new technology and another already has experience in that area.

Leveraging Relationships

In the end, a lot of the hurdles we face come down to policy. Some of it may come down to local politics or personalities, but in many instances we can see success in overcoming these hurdles before we even discuss a specific piece of technology just by starting with relationships.

Relationship building is critical whether it’s a neighboring police department working with the county sheriff’s office or state fire marshal. Whatever it might be, understanding how each organization is different and each has its own commitments is crucial. Ultimately, we have many of the same goals – to ensure public safety and protect our citizens.

We’ve seen some pretty big success coming from simply having the correct people in the room at the same time.

I also encourage public servants – whether state, county, municipality, or tribal and territorial – to participate in opportunities outside of your organization to further your experience. I’m honored to have had the opportunity to participate in a number of working groups, but I really do believe the public sees a much better outcome when our public servants participate in these larger efforts.

Maybe it’s a local task force or statewide committee, but the more perspectives we gain in these efforts, the more valuable these efforts become in helping us drive and spark innovation, not just from a technological standpoint, but a policy standpoint.

I know this can be difficult because we can often feel overwhelmed with our main job responsibilities, but where possible, organizational leaders should allow their line personnel to participate in these opportunities. Allowing our subject matter experts to participate in these grander efforts can be very valuable.

Some Final Thoughts

Whether you’re in North Carolina and working with the North Carolina First Responder Emerging Technologies Program, a similar program in your state, or going it on your own, here are some big picture reminders to keep in mind when walking the in the wild west of new technologies:

  1. Be sure to clearly define your problem. The problem at hand should drive the decision on what technologies to implement.
  2. It’s all about the applications, not the provider or network. Whoever provides your broadband service, keep your focus on the applications you’ll be using and keep them interoperable.
  3. Leverage relationships wherever you can find them. Whether with your own department, with a neighboring jurisdiction, or with colleagues from across the state or county, we face common problems and can help one another.

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: April 20, 2020