LAS VEGAS--Public safety has to look in the mirror and realize it is the problem when it comes to widespread adoption of IP technologies. That was the message delivered this morning by Morgan Wright, Cisco Systems’ global industry solutions manager for public safety and homeland security, who delivered the keynote address at IWCE 2007.

It was clear that Wright--a former Kansas state trooper who said he still “bleeds blue”--was not chastising public-safety representatives in the audience as much as he was trying to enlighten and motivate them. At one point, in an attempt to illustrate just how far IP technologies have advanced, Wright presented an image that clearly showed the presence of IP devices in a White House situation room.

“If the president can have sensitive national security discussions over a VoIP device, then IP is ready for prime time,” Wright said.

He also pointed out that the Department of Defense has certified Cisco IP systems for command and control communications. “It doesn’t get more mission-critical than that.”

IP technologies will make first responders far more effective than they are today, Wright said. He spoke of the ability to distribute computer-enhanced photos over high-speed data networks that depict the age progression of a missing person—“Something you can’t do with a flyer”—next-generation satellite communication systems that let first responders connect to a device anywhere in North America, and systems capable of bringing additional communications resources into a disaster area at the touch of a button.

Wright said that IP technologies have evolved at a far faster rate over the past dozen years or so than public-safety radios have over the past six decades. But he was quick to point out that he’s not calling for the elimination of radios from the communications tool kit. Rather, he suggested that first responders start looking at their radios as one endpoint in their communications networks, not the sole endpoint. Specifically, he said the future of public-safety communications should center on devices that can communicate to any other device, at any time, and from any place—a goal that can be accomplished through IP technology.

To get that done, public-safety officials need to change the way they think, Wright said. “Technology is no longer the limiting factor—now it’s people, policy and governance.”

He pointed out that when first responders—from headquarters personnel to those in the field—make telephone calls, they give no thought to the type of device the other person is using. Wright said it should work the same way with their radios.

“Would you buy a cell phone that could only connect to phones made by the same manufacturer, or to phones on the same carrier network? The answer is no,” he said. “In real life, you connect and the respective devices don’t matter. We want that same seamlessness in public-safety communications. We have to take the end point from being the focus of the discussion.”

It will require public-safety officials to be willing to change things that haven’t been changed for more than 30 years, he said, adding that he thinks public safety is up to the task. “If you weren’t capable of changing, you wouldn’t all have cell phones,” he said.

However, even if public safety changed its thinking regarding its communications systems, a lack of standards—as well as the slow pace of standards development—stands in the way of achieving the “any device, any time, any place,” goal, Wright said.

“Public safety has struggled with this for a long time. Some standards have been in development for 14 years,” he said.

Wright noted that the situation is even more curious when one considers all of us—first responders included—live in a standards-driven world. “Without standards, you wouldn’t be able to plug anything in without multiple adapters. … People are used to ten times more technology in their homes than what is provided to the public-safety sector.”

I agree with Wright wholeheartedly that public safety needs to change the way it thinks about its communications networks. Already there are many applications available to first responders that would make them more effective and keep them safer—and surely more will develop—but they require an IP infrastructure. It seems absurd that teenagers walk around with far more sophisticated technology in their hands than what is provided to first responders. That has to change.

I also agree with Wright that public safety eventually will change the way it thinks about IP—because it already has. More than three years ago, we started to write about IP and expressed the opinion that such technologies represented the future of first responder communications. At the time, few in public safety shared our view. Today, however, I think one would be hard-pressed to find a public-safety official who would refuse to concede that all voice and data communications in the first-responder sector ultimately will flow over IP networks.

Give public safety time. It will come around.

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