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How to make multi-agency collaboration a reality in a FirstNet world

A fundamental goal of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) is to enable multimedia communication and collaboration between all first-responder agencies, which is a challenging task. The good news is that numerous advanced technologies are available today to help deliver on the promise of secure, seamless multi-agency collaboration.

By Joe Boucher, Chief Technology Officer, Mutualink

A fundamental goal of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) is to enable multimedia communication and collaboration between all first-responder agencies. Additionally, many incidents require similar communication and collaboration with hospitals, schools, utilities, transit, and other entities that are essential to our communities’ safety and security.

Achieving this ambitious goal is not without its challenges, and states find themselves grappling with important issues as they take steps toward implementation of a public safety LTE network.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach for states to follow with regard to FirstNet. Because this is a new concept for our industry it will take some time for best practices to emerge. There seems to be widespread agreement, though, about some hurdles that need to be overcome:

·         Sovereignty—There is concern among agencies that inter-agency and cross-jurisdictional collaboration will result in the loss of control over their communications assets to a centralized system.

·         Resiliency—Emergencies occur in dynamic environments, which means that the solution must be resilient enough to provide service all the time and in any location, even with impaired or unavailable wide-area connectivity.

·         Affordability—Agencies must be able to leverage their existing systems, as well as future-proof them for inevitable technology innovations down the road.

There are a few fundamentally different approaches to tackling these challenges, and each has advantages and disadvantages. At one extreme is a cloud-based solution; this approach is affordable and scalable, but it requires centralized control and reliable connectivity to the cloud, which is not always available. At the other extreme are on-scene/tactical “suitcase” solutions; these are adequate for on-scene collaboration, but they can’t connect to agencies outside the immediate area to share information in real time.

Another approach is a distributed collaboration solution that addresses all these challenges without the shortcomings of the alternatives. It can be used in a fixed/hosted environment, as well as a dynamic/mobile environment, or—even better—as a combination of the two.

A distributed approach lets all participants maintain control over their communications assets, only sharing information when and with whom they want. It is resilient and reliable, providing service even in the most challenging networking environments, therefore preserving the continuity of operations for all parties involved. This solution leverages existing infrastructure and has low recurring costs, making it an affordable and scalable solution.

JerseyNet, New Jersey’s Band 14 LTE public-safety system, is a great example of a buildout using this distributed approach. The network infrastructure in NJ will facilitate secure and reliable multimedia communications in both densely populated and rural locations for emergency-response situations, leveraging System on Wheels (SOWs) that can act as standalone LTE systems that do not depend on any backhaul to provide service to local users.

The approach New Jersey has taken is one of many in a wide range of solutions that can benefit public safety. Each state needs to explore the various options and find the one that works best for them. The good news is that numerous advanced technologies are available today to help deliver on the promise of secure, seamless multi-agency collaboration.

Joe Boucher is the Chief Technology Officer at Mutualink. At IWCE 2015, Joe will be speaking on this topic as part of a panel session, "FirstNet LTE Migration - Building for the Future with Co-Existing Networks". He can be reached at jboucher@mutualink.net

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