Public-safety communications: What if?
Nextel’s iDEN network should be used as a primary public-safety communications system.
Now that I have your attention, let’s talk. Commercial wireless services have become an integral part of public-safety communications. This is especially true in the areas of broadband services, primarily for data but NOT for mission-critical voice communications. It is also well-documented that many public-safety agencies are using Nextel’s Direct Connect as a secondary or parallel means of communication for logistics and non-mission-critical operations.
A quick review reveals that many public-safety agencies need to upgrade or replace their existing traditional land mobile radio (LMR) systems. To accomplish this, it has been estimated to cost billions of dollars. There is also a desire to take advantage of new and enhanced technology features, but traditional LMR systems are not capable. It is also clear that there will never be funding to accomplish the monumental task of replacing the entire infrastructure. Moreover, public safety has had much difficulty (for decades) getting the radio spectrum it so desperately needs, even though it has been repeatedly documented — and validated — after Sept. 11, 2001.
Given all of this, is there a window of opportunity to expand commercial wireless service into the public-safety world of primary mission-critical voice communications?
In a June MRT article, Donny Jackson reports that Nextel President and CEO Tim Donahue believes the company’s iDEN network could be part of the “public-safety network of the future.” In the same article, Donahue further suggests that the iDEN network could become “a very strong public-safety network for this country.” Jackson also reports that Nextel believes this could be achieved through some joint effort with Motorola. There is also a reference to potential funding through another national project, known as the integrated wireless network (IWN).
Let’s imagine for a moment that Nextel could provide a new trunked radio system for public safety that would allow for enhanced voice and data communications locally and nationally — a system that would support camera phones, video and more. What would make this idea acceptable to public safety?
Without getting too technical, the following would have to be addressed:
Reliability: 99+% operational;
Redundancy: overlap coverage, hardened tower-transmitter sites and emergency power;
Maintenance/repair response time;
True ruthless pre-emption;
Radio equipment designed for public safety (ruggedized, intrinsically safe);
Acceptable voice quality;
Emergency alerting for person in danger;
Radio identification and ability to disable, if necessary;
Assurances to continued commercial service.
If all of the common public-safety requirements were met, the system could provide voice and data, integrating other commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) enhancements. Would commercial wireless solutions then be acceptable as a primary public-safety communications system?
If your department could use a new system without having to purchase the infrastructure — and other online costs were reasonable and within your budget — would your agency take advantage of it?
From my viewpoint, I would applaud a commercial and government partnership that would develop a totally new public-safety communication concept that enables public safety to communicate regionally in an effective and interoperable way without having to locally spend millions of dollars. First responders deserve a system that can evolve and provide new features/enhancements without requiring the replacement of existing infrastructure. I believe there is a way to create a common system that meets the needs of both the commercial customer and public safety.
Realistically, I believe this is the only way that public safety will ever be able to fully implement and utilize state-of-the-art solutions.
Charles Werner is a 28-year veteran of the fire service and presently serves as deputy chief of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department. He serves on several state and federal interoperability groups.