A bright new future awaits first responders
Morgan Wright, Cisco System’s global industry solutions manager for public safety, is leveraging previous experience as a state trooper and police detective to guide the vendor giant into the public-safety communications sector, which is in the midst of arguably the most tumultuous time in its history. Recently, MRT senior writer Donny Jackson caught up with Wright — who is scheduled to deliver the keynote address at IWCE 2007 in Las Vegas this month — to discuss the current and future state of first responder data communications.
In your two-and-half years with Cisco, what is the most significant change in the data arena?
The thing we’re starting to see change is that people are realizing that it’s just as important to have a discussion about how to share information — and how to access other forms of media and content — as it is to talk about voice and radio interoperability, which is still an important discussion.
How has public safety altered its attitude toward data and IP?
There’s obviously a lot more [mobile data terminals] going out there. … What’s driving this is the availability of bandwidth and access, whether it’s an outdoor wireless mesh, EV-DO or whatever. No longer are people buying a laptop just to do text-based entry over CDPD. Now they’re able to get mug photos and even use biometric analytics.
What changes do you foresee in the way public safety operates?
I’m really trying to get people to quit thinking inside the box and start asking, “How can you use stuff like YouTube, Google and Wikipedia to create the capabilities public safety needs?” We’re realizing that it’s about access to data. Video can be data, from the standpoint that it can provide essential information, like access to video surveillance or access to training on demand.
Here’s where I see the future going in terms of sharing information: As a detective, I have a concept I want to search for — not just a name, but a concept like “blue Chevy van, flat tire.” I log in, I authenticate to the system. That authentication provides the level of security and the level of access I’m entitled to as that end user. I now do an inquiry that can hit multiple databases.
My inquiry not only spawns data, but it can also spawn analytics, so I can retrieve information out of video surveillance that can identify blue Chevy vans with a flat tire. That’s not that far off.
And with one inquiry, I also can access voice. With anything that’s been lawfully recorded, you can now — with text-to-speech capabilities — access those conversations that can be searched in text. It’s not about a records-management system anymore. It’s about where the information exists, in any form, in the enterprise.
Can these searching capabilities impact training for enterprises?
Absolutely. Nothing is better than seeing somebody in the field actually using [a solution] in a real situation. Now they can go out and do a fixed demonstration, [record it] and people can pull it up — on demand.
Look at what happened on YouTube and Wikipedia. We’re actually turning consumers into producers. We can now access the collective intelligence of everybody out there. Can you imagine when you have some firefighter who, for example, understands how to do one thing really well, and he decides to self-produce his own video? Now he has a way to share that with other folks, so they can see how it works from somebody who’s really an expert.
It’s not about waiting for somebody to come out and say, “Let’s see what we’re going to do a training video on.’ Rather than trying to go through some weeklong training course that might be six months down the road, I can now get on something like a Wikipedia … to tell me what I need to know.
Recently IBM and Intel made announcements that will enable processing chips to continue to get smaller and faster, in accordance with Moore’s Law. What’s the significance of that?
With the smaller chips — more power, less heat and less battery consumption — I could see — in five years — a ruggedized device that functions as a PDA, a push-to-talk radio, a phone and a mobile data device. So if first responders get out of the car, they could still access pictures because the bandwidth will be there. It will have long battery life, it will have a screen like the Toughbooks.
The other issue is the battery. How much battery life are we going to have in the next five years? How long can these guys go between charges? Because, when stuff hits the fan, that’s a problem. I hate to say it, but public safety going green [e.g., solar power] makes a lot of sense … from a functionality standpoint. Powering these devices is one of the key issues. How do you maintain power, how do you maintain connectivity? These things have to run on energy.
If you’re forward deployed or you’re outside your car, and it’s a long event like a Hurricane Katrina … you almost have to get to the point where your first responders can operate for two or three days with whatever they have in their vehicle — from a power standpoint and from a capability standpoint.
With so much happening so fast technologically, is it almost overwhelming to decide what to do when building a new network?
There is a lot of paralysis by analysis. Public safety has to become better consumers and make better choices. They have to start using the power of the dollar and start putting RFPs out there that say, “This is our requirement. We want this and that in here,” and force things like GJXDM and software-defined radios. Once public safety says, “If it’s not in here, we’re not buying it,” industry will start building it.
If you buy into an upgrade path, [buyer’s remorse] is not a problem. For example, when you buy a new cell phone, you don’t have to upgrade the network — the service provider has taken care of that. All you have to do is replace the device you want. But when you do traditional push-to-talk radio, you have to replace stuff — towers and equipment. You can’t just buy another radio because the back end is still the same.
I believe we should go to almost a service-provider model, where what you’re paying for on the front end is the access, and you buy your own device, but the upgrades on the back end are continuous on your network. … All you’re doing is buying a subscription.
That model sounds like the public/private partnerships being considered by the FCC and Congress. If political hurdles can be overcome, can such partnerships work?
On public/private relationships, your main barriers always are legal issues — privacy and security issues, specifically. Privacy is determining what information you can collect, and security is keeping the pre-defined information safe.
I think the biggest thing privacy advocates are worried about is the blurring of the lines between what is public information and what is public-safety information — what are they allowed to collect and what are they not allowed to collect.
But when you start talking about the prevalence of video, what about public-safety departments accessing the video from private systems, like a convenience store? Here’s a great public/private relationship. [As a store owner,] I don’t want public safety to know what I’m doing, but when I dial 911 or I hit the panic button, I want the camera opened up, so the police department can view what’s going on in my store.
As I told the FBI, there was a time when industry was not providing the technology they needed to do their jobs. Now, it’s the other way around — the situation is that the technology has advanced so much that you don’t have the proper governance to use it properly.