There’s an app for that — and more are coming

A plethora of public-safety-specific applications have been developed for iPhone and Android smartphones, as well as for tablet computers. Some provide vital data to incident commanders, while others notify college students of a pending peril or recruit CPR-trained residents to assist someone in need until the ambulance arrives. And it’s a safe bet that plenty more are on the way, as the mobile-app marketplace continues to expand and is expected to explode in 2012. According to a study created by Chetan Sharma Consulting, mobile-app downloads are expected to jump from 7 billion in 2009 to almost 50 billion next year, when the market is expected to be worth $17.5 billion.

Among the public-safety apps that currently are available is one developed for the Apple iPhone and iPad from California-based FireWhat and application developer Pusher that consolidates federal fire, environmental and location data for those fighting or managing wildfires. FireWhat is a relatively new company, founded in January 2011 by two firefighters and an MIT grad. The app replicates the company’s website, which is a repository of information from the National Interagency Fire Center, CAL FIRE, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Weather Service, NOAA and NASA, among others. It also includes a live feed from Weather Underground, a service that offers spot-weather forecasting from thousands of personal weather stations.

Agency-verified data comes into the company’s website automatically and is available immediately to application users. On the fly, they can access active fire-perimeter mapping, size-up reports, weather information and data on dead-fuel moisture levels (which indicate the probability of the landscape igniting). In addition, GIS mapping data is augmented by custom overlays related to severe weather warnings, smoke cover and more.

A fire-behavior calculator is incorporated that helps users understand how a wildfire will burn, in what direction it will move and how intense it likely will get. They also are developing a radio-frequency function that will enable a user to click on a named fire and the screen will display its assigned frequency. The app currently is available for the iPhone and costs $8.99 for download through the Apple store. However, the company is working on an Android version.

Apps also have been developed to enhance student safety given the risk of mass-shooting incidents at schools and universities. For example, University of Maryland students, faculty and staff now can access an Android smartphone app that gives them a direct and instant line of communication to campus police and dispatch. Dubbed the M-Urgency app, it lets smartphone users on campus broadcast real-time audio and video to emergency dispatchers with the push of a button, via the university’s wireless network. Dispatchers in turn can send the real-time data to responders in their cars or in the field. The app also can be used as a virtual emergency alert. Campus police could, for example, monitor a student’s smartphone video feed upon request as the person walked across campus at night. The app is free for download at the Android marketplace.

Getting citizens involved in public safety was the impetus for an iPhone app developed by the San Ramon Valley (Calif.) Fire Protection District. Indeed, citizen engagement can act as a force multiplier, as evidenced by this app that lets local residents provide life‐saving assistance to victims of sudden cardiac arrest.
Those who indicate they are trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation can register for the app. They then are notified if someone nearby is having a cardiac emergency that requires CPR. Specifically, when a cardiac 911 call is received by the city’s dispatch center, the data are sent to first responders and citizens’ iPhones.

If the cardiac emergency is in a public place, the application — which leverages GPS technology — will alert nearby citizens that someone needs CPR. The app also directs such citizens to the exact location of the closest public-access automated external defibrillator. The International Association of Fire Chiefs has committed to promoting the app and will work with the department to help other agencies adopt it.

Nationwide, federal agencies want to ensure that citizens are informed during a disaster. In fact, providing information during disasters was the impetus for FEMA’s new app, available on Android platforms and the iPhone, as well as the iPad. FEMA’s disaster-preparedness mobile app lets citizens enter their family’s emergency meeting locations; review safety tips on what to do before, during and after a disaster; view a map of shelters and disaster-recovery centers across the U.S.; and read the agency’s latest blog posts on disaster incidents and response.

FEMA built the app to work even when there is no mobile service; because all of the relevant data is deposited on the user’s device, they can access it any time it’s needed. FEMA soon will release an app for Blackberry version 6.

The explosion of public-safety apps will continue in 2012, as first responders and the citizens they serve clamor for vital data that will enable them to better handle the emergencies and disasters they encounter. — Mary Rose Roberts

Just another tool on the belt

The enterprise, public-safety and military sectors are undergoing transformations thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and tablets. As workers demand to use these devices and IT leaders recognize their ability to reduce cost and improve efficiency, agencies within these sectors must find ways to effectively manage these devices while capitalizing on their benefits.

The trend — known as the consumerization of the enterprise — is well-known in the private sector. Rather than purchasing smartphones for their workers, many businesses now are allowing workers to bring their own devices into the workplace. Corporate security policies are then handled via mobile device management (MDM) solutions and other security measures such as “sandboxing,” which provides an encrypted container at the application level to secure applications and services.

In the public-safety and military markets, BlackBerry devices already have made an appearance due to their high security standards. However, they primarily have been used for secure access to e-mail and calendars. Now a move is afoot to allow more consumer-oriented devices.

“Agencies are looking at a tool to do the job that goes on the belt like the gun and the night stick,” said Brian Reed, chief marketing officer with MDM firm BoxTone. “Smartphones are becoming part of the mission.”

Reed said that he is witnessing swift adoption of smartphones in federal, state and local agencies. Tablet adoption is still in the infancy stage, but agencies have an eye on adopting 5- and 7-inch form factors in the field that are capable of providing fast-access to critical data.

SIDEBAR: What we’d like to see happen in 2012

The military has been studying the adoption of consumer devices for some time. Recently, the Department of Defense approved the use of Dell’s Android-based mobile operating system, a move that is expected to pave the way for wider use of Android-based smartphones and tablets throughout the military.

In addition, the Defense Information Systems Agency has certified Dell’s Mobile Security for Android platform for information assurance and use on defense networks, said Joe Ayers, an executive in Dell’s government business, in a recent blog post.

Dell also has developed a solution for the Android OS — in partnership with Redwood City, Calif., mobile app developer Good Technology — that gives users secure access to e-mail, documents, a partitioned ecosystem of Android apps and other business applications. Through Dell’s Android platform and the mobile device management offered by Good Technology’s Good for Government system, information can be passed and managed through Microsoft Exchange servers, as well as network operations centers, wirelessly. Certified and piloted on the Deal Streak 5, the certification will allow the next wave of Dell Android devices, set for release next year, to be integrated rapidly into military environments, Ayers said.

Smartphones are becoming more attractive to the public sector as it with doing more with less, said Donald Denning, chief information officer for the city of Boston, whose government agencies — including the police department — have adopted consumer devices. “We need to become more flexible and innovative in ways that we have not before and make the investments,” Denning said. “Smartphones are a force multiplier, and we are able to have the same number of people we have but doing a better job because they have the right tools.”

RELATED: How Boston government agencies are using smartphone apps, social media

At the Boston Police Department, consumerization is well underway, said John Daly, the department’s chief technology officer. Because of security issues, the police department hasn’t officially adopted smartphones other than the BlackBerry, but Daly said that his agency is working to put the right policies in place to allow a myriad of consumer devices to be used within the agency.

Already, a handful of enterprising detectives have repurposed third-party apps on their personal iPhones to track their contacts, complete with photos, Denning said.

Daly said that the police department is looking at adding internal applications as well as developing innovative ways to interact with the public.

“We’ve been doing social networking,” Daly said. “We want to take that to the next level. We have a lot of applications that we push to the public. We want to take that beyond a mobile-optimized Web page to something more interactive. We’re talking to developers about different apps, and internally we are looking at how to allow our existing records management systems to interact with apps on smartphones.”

Reed said that the Holy Grail for the public-safety community is instant communications — the ability to access case histories and photos. “Imagery is one of the game changers,” Reed said.

“Capturing an image of a person or car and sharing it instantly across a group is very powerful.”

Of course that’s the same mentality associated with bringing public-safety LTE networks online, but until then, first responders can obtain the technology via commercial networks. — Lynnette Luna

Public safety’s tangled web

Public-safety communications is in a state of flux, arguably more so than at any other time in history. Throughout the nation, mission-critical voice technology is being updated as part of the FCC mandates for 800 MHz rebanding — still not completed, more than three years after the initial target date — and the narrowbanding of systems operating below 512 MHz.

Driven in part by these mandates and grant-funding guidelines, many public-safety agencies are taking the opportunity to upgrade their networks from proprietary protocols to the Project 25 standard that is designed to enhance interoperability and create a more competitive vendor environment. In some cases, this involves moving to the 700 MHz narrowband airwaves that only became usable two years ago, and/or working within a regional framework instead of one that serves a single department or jurisdiction.

SIDEBAR: What we think will happen in 2012

While these incremental changes have been the operational focus of first-responder communications officials over the past few years, the impact of these LMR-based migrations dwarfs in comparison to the proposals for utilizing LTE technology on public safety’s 700 MHz broadband spectrum. By leveraging commercial technology in this band, public safety promises to benefit from greater innovation, lower equipment costs and the opportunity to create nationwide interoperability for mission-critical data communications — and eventually, voice.

These realities are why the issues surrounding all of these potential migration paths have attracted so much attention within the public-safety arena. With virtually all public-safety agencies trying to work with very tight budgets that are becoming more restrictive in a depressed economy, policy decisions being made by Congress and the FCC promise to play a significant role in determining the speed at which much-anticipated public-safety technological transitions occur.

Certainly the most notable issues being considered by Congress surround spectrum and funding regarding the creation of a national broadband network for first responders in the 700 MHz band.

Within the public-safety community, the top priority has been spectrum — specifically, the 700 MHz D Block, a swath of airwaves adjacent to the 10 MHz of public-safety broadband spectrum currently licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST). Existing law calls for the FCC to auction the D Block to a commercial operator, but public-safety representatives have lobbied effectively for the past two years and appear to be on the verge of getting enough support to get Congress to reallocate the coveted airwaves to public safety, with only a group Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee expressing significant opposition.

Congress also is considering funding options for this network. Legislation introduced thus far would provide $7 billion to $12 billion for the Long-Term Evolution-based network. If such funding becomes reality, there could be an unprecedented amount of interest from myriad vendors virtually overnight, because an identifiable market size and revenue source would have appeared.

On the other hand, if no federal funding is appropriated for 700 MHz broadband, most industry analysts question whether public-safety LTE deployments will occur. After all, many public-safety entities are being forced to lay off personnel and some barely have enough money to maintain existing systems, much less pursue the buildout of new broadband communications networks that have significantly greater backhaul demands than legacy narrowband LMR systems.

SIDEBAR: Key questions for 2012

Moreover, there is a growing belief that implications from the spectrum and funding decisions could be interrelated. For instance, if Congress does not reallocate the D Block to first responders, public-safety entities will have limited opportunities to secure partners — some studies indicate that in metropolitan areas the existing 10 MHz of broadband spectrum will not be enough to serve the needs of public-safety entities, much less be useful for other purposes.

However, if Congress does reallocate the D Block, public safety would have a contiguous 20 MHz swath of broadband spectrum that it would utilize fully only during significant events that occur in a limited number of cell sectors. With this type of spectral foundation and the wide variety of prioritization that LTE allows, partnerships with non-public-safety entities — most notably, other government users and critical-infrastructure entities like utilities and transportation groups — would provide access to additional revenue streams and enhance interoperable operations during times of crisis.

In slightly more than a year, the FCC has mandated that all LMR systems operating below 512 MHz make the transition from 25 kHz channels to 12.5 kHz channels. This Jan. 1, 2013, deadline has been known for several years, but many in the industry anticipate that many operators — public safety and private enterprises alike — will struggle to comply with the FCC rule, for a variety of reasons.

While there are systems that are behind in narrowbanding preparations because officials are unaware of the requirement or only learned of it recently, the bigger issue is funding. Narrowbanding is an unfunded federal mandate, so each entity must find the money needed to pay for the upgrade to a compliant system.

One saving grace for many entities has been the fact that equipment sold since 1997 has been required to meet narrowbanding guidelines, so affected LMR networks that have been built or refreshed during the past 15 years may not have to be overhauled a great deal, especially if the narrowbanding upgrade was included in long-range plans.

SIDEBAR: Narrowbanding timeline

If not, the narrowbanding task promises to be much more challenging. A large or mid-size entity facing tight budgets during an extended economic downturn may face the difficult choice of spending for an LMR communications system upgrade or using the money to avoid laying off personnel. For a very small agency — for example, a volunteer fire department — there simply may not be any money available to narrowband.

Complicating matters further is the fact that some public-safety entities do not want to spend limited financial and personnel resources to narrowband LMR systems that they plan to abandon in the foreseeable future. In St. Louis, several public-safety agencies are building a regional 800 MHz system that is expected to be operational in 2013, so they have asked the FCC to waive their narrowbanding requirements to avoid spending money to narrowband systems that would be used only for a period of months after the upgrade is executed.

Several public-safety officials have expressed support for the St. Louis narrowbanding waiver request, but a much-anticipated waiver request from New York City has been a source of considerable skepticism throughout the industry. Like St. Louis, New York City officials have expressed a desire to repurpose funds that would be spent on narrowbanding and use them to help pay for the deployment of a new network — a 700 MHz LTE network.

A key difference between the St. Louis waiver and New York City’s expected waiver — the official request will be filed before the end of the year, according to Charles Dowd, deputy chief for the New York Police Department — is that St. Louis will offer mission-critical voice on its new 800 MHz network within months of the narrowbanding deadline, while New York has no funds to build its proposed LTE network. In addition, there is no clear path to providing mission-critical voice over an LTE network at the moment.

FCC officials have been firm in their statements that the agency plans to enforce the narrowbanding mandate after the Jan. 1, 2013, deadline, but the realities of individual situations could make such actions difficult.

RELATED: Don’t believe narrowbanding delay rumor

For instance, with job creation a national priority, will it be politically feasible to assess fines that could cost an LMR operator much-needed personnel? Similarly, does assessing fines against a cash-strapped volunteer fire department for non-compliance accomplish the desired ending? And, if broadband is the future — a mantra of the current FCC — should a mandate relating to legacy LMR technology be allowed to jeopardize a public-safety entity’s ability to take advantage of the LTE environment?

With so many questions, the FCC’s actions during 2012 regarding narrowbanding are certain to be monitored closely and scrutinized by many throughout the industry. — Donny Jackson