First things first
Imagine a world where super-advanced high-tech innovations all come together in a universal solution for an integrated communications network that could be all things to all people — or at least to all public-safety professionals and emergency responders.
A portable hand-held wireless device could be a miniature computer and keyboard, photo and video camera, satellite and cell phone, amazing all-purpose radio, metal detector, DNA analyzer, microwave oven and doughnut container all in one — all controlled by a chip the size of a shirt button.
Federal agents, law enforcement officers, EMS responders, and fire/rescue crews would be able to exchange e-mail and text messages, transfer and store data, conduct surveillance, do Internet searches, display a suspect’s or victim’s ID and life history onscreen, record expenses, plus maybe accommodate some add-on functions like radar, lasers, tasers, sirens, bells and assorted whistles.
With all the attention given to every new high-tech promise we hear these days, to some that dream may not seem so far from reality. In truth, there are many advances in technology that are important and will be extremely useful in emergency response situations.
But also true is that all of these high-tech capabilities will not magically merge into one phenomenal system that performs every function and meets every need and performance specification. Cramming more and more types of functionality into hand-held devices tends to obscure the most important objectives of communications product development.
Some things don’t change — or shouldn’t. Basic questions still must be asked and answered for every technological advancement that creates excitement in the communications industry. To wit:
Does it advance the achievement of the primary mission?
Will it truly help first responders communicate?
Will it cut costs — or add to them?
It would be nice, for instance, to be among the first to have a quarter-million-dollar command vehicle fortified with exotic electronic systems and communications equipment. But for how many state, county and municipal police and fire departments would such vehicles be essential? Or affordable? Similarly, how many of the bells and whistles now being stuffed into communications devices are necessary, or actually improve communications — particularly in emergency situations — or help contain, or even push down costs?
The extras are intriguing, but sometimes they cloud the real issue: how to make radio communications more reliable, effective and affordable. Some new technological innovations may prove useful in certain types of situations, but that should not distract from the basic need for reliable radio communications, day in and day out, year after year.
For instance, our industry now is facing the need to upgrade to digital P25 radios, and unless agencies conduct thorough comparisons, that alone could add considerably to their costs.
Beyond that, there are many issues and challenges that demand answers and solutions, including how to: achieve interoperability between various agencies’ radios; improve command and coordination of multi-agency response to an incident; and restore and extend public-safety radio networks following disasters or disruptions. Fortunately, these — and more — are being addressed in our industry on a continuing basis.
The race to find the newest and most advanced product offerings and options should not hinder our view of what we have learned about the communications priorities of first responders in the field: ease of use, audio quality and rugged durability
The potential of broadband network access may be of interest going forward. But streaming video — to pick just one example — probably is not the first priority of emergency responders.
David P. Storey is president and CEO of RELM Wireless Corp., a manufacturer and marketer of mobile radio equipment for public-safety and government agencies, as well as business-band radios serving a wide range of commercial applications, for six decades.