Urgent Matters

Applications are key to FirstNet success

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FirstNet officials envision an application-development ecosystem similar to that which exists in the commercial sector. However, it will take some time to determine which apps will be most useful, because application development for public safety still is at a nascent stage.

As considerable attention is focused—justifiably—on the financial, political and technical hurdles that FirstNet must overcome to make the vision of a nationwide broadband network for first responders a reality, one of the questions repeated most is, “What will it be used for?”

It’s a legitimate question. Sure, there will be times when being able to push video to first responders on the scene—or receive video from them—will greatly enhance situational awareness during emergency situations, but video also brings a lot of challenges, in terms of monitoring, cataloging, storing and using network capacity. There has to be other benefits, right?

There will be, although it may not be clear for some time which applications will be most helpful to public safety, because the industry is so nascent.

After all, many first-responder apps today are designed to work on reliable LMR data networks that provide very-low-speed data throughputs, which naturally limits what developers can include in their applications. Public-safety personnel do utilize some broadband applications, but those typically are accessed via commercial wireless networks, which often are unavailable during large emergencies, so first responders can’t depend on them when they need the applications the most.

If the FirstNet vision is realized, first responders no longer will have to choose between applications that are reliable and those that demand higher data throughput, because the FirstNet system will be designed to provide both. And that reality promises to revolutionize the way public safety does business—in large part, because a reliable broadband pipe will allow app developers to be much more creative than ever before.

Who are these app developers? Some will be familiar names, vendors that have long served the first-responder and military sectors. Other are entities that have developed popular enterprise applications that may only need to be tweaked a bit to fulfill public safety’s needs. Still others are unknown software companies or first responders that come up with an idea for an application and develop it to meet a public-safety requirement.

A prime example of the last example is Richard Price, a former fire chief who is now the president of PulsePoint, an application he developed after being frustrated that he was not given the chance to save the life of a heart-attack victim in a nearby restaurant.

“It doesn’t matter where it comes from,” Dr. Franklin Pratt, medical director for the Los Angeles County fire department, said last week. “What matters is that you have an idea.”

App stores that feature applications that run on mobile devices are commonplace in the commercial arena, and FirstNet officials have reiterated their desire to establish a similar ecosystem that encourages innovation within the public-safety community. To this end, FirstNet last week signed a memorandum of understanding with the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), which has developed the AppComm website, which features applications designed for public-safety use, including PulsePoint.

AppComm does a great job of identifying and categorizing existing public-safety applications, as well as providing a avenue for public-safety personnel to give developers ideas about helpful apps that could be developed in the future. Such discussions not only can spark the development of new apps, such input can help make existing apps more helpful and relevant, Pratt said.

At IWCE and Urgent Communications, we also plan to play an active role to help foster innovation in the first-responder application arena—the IWCE virtual trade show on Dec. 11 will feature an area dedicated to applications, and we are in the process of pursuing several other apps-related initiatives. Whether you are developer with an app or a first responder with an idea for an application that you would like to see developed, please let us know that you would like to participate in any of these endeavors.

Of course, innovation is great, but it is vital that public-safety agencies can be confident that any applications they download do not contain viruses, malware or other coding that could compromise data or the FirstNet system. It also is vital that the apps actually do what they were to designed to do. All of this is outside the realm of AppComm today, but FirstNet Chairman Sam Ginn last week pledged that FirstNet would vet software applications before being used on its network.

Hopefully, this vetting process will not delay public safety’s ability to use a helpful application too much, but most first responders will understand the need to err on the side of caution in this case. If this significant hurdle can be cleared efficiently, the beauty is that the first-responder community will get to benefit from the same kind of robust, innovative applications ecosystem that we’ve seen in the commercial sector—and public-safety personnel deserve nothing less.

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.

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Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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