Perfecting the mix
Over the past 70 years, Motorola has been the undisputed market-leading provider of communications systems to U.S. public-safety agencies that are designed to work in emergency environments that are most stressful for first responders and the networks used to serve them.
For the most part, those systems have focused primarily — if not exclusively — on delivering mission-critical voice communications. In recent years, the paradigm has shifted gradually, as low-bandwidth data applications enabling queries of law-enforcement databases have become increasingly commonplace.
But the potential availability of high-bandwidth pipes via 4G wireless and other broadband networks that can support more robust applications such as the transfer of images and video has caused officials for the vendor giant to rethink its approach regarding the future. Motorola now believes a more dramatic paradigm change is on the near-term horizon, and the company has devoted considerable resources from both its commercial and mission-critical divisions to develop systems for what it calls “next-generation public safety.”
This effort was driven by a change in the marketplace, according to Motorola officials. Where once public-safety officials were wary of IP-based technologies that were viewed as too unreliable for use by the industry, key sector representatives recently have embraced the enhanced features that commercial technologies can bring to the first-response community amid debates regarding the use of public safety’s 700 MHz broadband spectrum.
“I think we started to see more and more momentum around the vision for this architecture about a year-and-half to two years ago,” said Greg Brown, co-CEO of Motorola Inc. and newly named CEO of Motorola’s enterprise mobility solutions and networks businesses. “It has been accelerated in the last year, when the Major Cities Chiefs said, ‘We think the broadband solution for public safety coalesces around LTE,’ which was in 2009. But we started to think about this in 2008 and started to modify and construct our product development and R&D probably a year-and-half ago.”
Access to unprecedented amounts of voice, image, video and data information is the foundation of the promise of next-generation public-safety networks, potentially providing responders with situational awareness that most only can dream about today. But it is a promise that many in public safety fear could be a double-edged sword, because random delivery of so many informational inputs could become an operational and logistical nightmare for agencies if not managed properly.
“As we move into a much more data-rich environment, it’s absolutely critical that we don’t get into a situation where we overload a public-safety officer or the command-and-control centers,” said Tom Quirke, senior director of Motorola’s enterprise mobility solutions unit. “If not handled carefully, it’s going to be a flood of information that will just get switched off. Anything that jeopardizes the mission doesn’t get used; we know that’s what happens on the ground.
“So it has to be very carefully thought through — from the devices, to the applications, to the networks — to bring them all together. If you don’t have all of these components, it’s difficult to deliver next-generation public safety.”
At the heart of Motorola’s next-generation public-safety vision is the current generation of LMR networks, which have been optimized for first-responder use and hardened in multiple ways — from redundant communications paths to backup power to more resilient packaging for communications equipment — to ensure reliability and availability.
“Everything we do has to build on the investments customers have made in the mission-critical core,” Quirke said. “That is an investment they have made, and everything has got to be built from it.”
Of course, even the most robust LMR networks provide relatively modest data throughputs, but the virtual pipe is large enough to run many text-based applications effectively, which becomes particularly important during large-scale incidents that result in commercial networks being so congested by consumer traffic that they often are not practical for public-safety use. Establishing policies regarding the best times to use the mission-critical network for data applications — a concept already being executed by mobile VPN providers — is fundamental to maximizing an agency’s investment in existing infrastructure, according to Motorola officials.
And LMR voice must be considered part of the overall next-generation solution for some time, Brown said. While there has been considerable speculation within the public-safety community regarding the possibility of mission-critical voice communications being carried over LTE 4G commercial wireless technology, the fact is that the current LTE standard does not support voice at all and the next release of the standard is expected to support only best-effort commercial voice.
While most industry sources believe LTE networks technically could provide mission-critical voice communications eventually, the standards bodies — typically driven by the commercial markets — would need to make key public-safety features such as one-to-many broadcast, talk groups and talk-around part of the technology, which could take several years.
“I think the notion of having a full, mission-critical IP network where mission-critical voice is just another application is 10-plus years away,” Brown said. “In the meantime, the transition … needs to capitalize on the incumbent installed base of several billion dollars of assets and purchased interoperable communications equipment to have a customer progress up that technology curve — with refreshed migration ultimately to a full IP environment.”
Integrating such a broadband-based IP environment that leverages the six components of a next-generation network (see graphic on previous page) with the mission-critical core can yield a remarkable stream of relevant information that can help response agencies execute more efficiently and more safely.
In terms of day-to-day applications, the availability of broadband and compatible devices can allow an officer to obtain verifiable identifications and check background records immediately during a traffic stop, instead of having to return to his vehicle to query a law-enforcement database.
While this capability means the officer can return to his patrol sooner, the integration of license-plate recognition with appropriate databases can provide new levels of situational awareness before the officer leaves his vehicle. Instead of blindly encountering a driver during a traffic stop, a quick query of the license plate can let the officer know if the vehicle has been involved in prior incidents or if the owner has a background of violence that might make precautions such as requesting backup advisable.
Similar technologies can be used in more urgent circumstances, as well. By using the GPS coordinates provided by a first-responder’s LMR or data device, a first responder can be alerted — via voice, text or flashing alarm — automatically when entering an area deemed to be particularly dangerous. Quirke said such an application could be particularly helpful during pursuits.
“When I’m running and chasing that suspect, it would very useful to know — because I have my location — what I’m running past or running through,” he said. “Is it a drug den? Was there a murder committed there in the past one or two years? Is it a situation where you should be a little more cautious and not go into until you request backup before entering?”
Perhaps the most compelling application associated with a next-generation public-safety architecture is video, particularly as it is made more relevant based on location-based policies. For instance, several entities have integrated their video systems with gunshot-location technologies, so cameras immediately pan toward the area where shots are fired.
A similar application concerns integrating with with LMR radios with GPS capabilities to enhance first-responder safety. Motorola is developing the capability to have video cameras immediately pan toward a location where a user has pressed the “man-down” emergency button — and second-level cameras can be reconfigured automatically to look at areas where a perpetrator might try to flee the scene.
Such applications may change the way public-safety officials view data applications, Quirke said.
“You can imagine that today, voice [priority] is high, and they’re not so sure about data,” he said. “When data starts supporting that system, you’ll soon find that data [priority] needs to be up here, as well, and needs to be as reliable as voice. You can see that it starts to get embedded into the operational framework of the first-responder agencies.”
But the key to making such information operationally useful is ensuring its relevance. During an incident, that relevance generall is based on the known location of an officer or the incident itself. However, in “normal” video-surveillance situations, ever-improving video-analytics technologies can be used to help ensure that relevant activities are brought to the attention of those monitoring the cameras.
“Without these assets, video is just an interesting science experiment,” said Kevin McDunn, director of strategy for the applications and data solutions group of Motorola’s enterprise mobility solutions unit. “Our goal is to turn that video wall into images that are relevant.”
Not only must the information be relevant, it must be presented in a way that takes into account the unique factors faced by those involved in emergency response — something Motorola has devoted considerable resources to achieving, particularly in recent years, Quirke said.
“We believe everything has to be intuitive,” he said. “An example of that may very well be, as you use systems in very stressful situations, you may lose higher executive cognitive capabilities — i.e., the ability to read.”
For the next-generation architecture to reach its potential effectiveness, a new type of interoperability — the linking of various platforms providing disparate date, voice and video streams — must exist, said Darren McQueen, vice president and general manager for integrated command and control.
“All of that content, as well as the records management being supported in the integrated command external databases, suddenly can become correlated based on the location, the incident type and officer personnel,” he said. “And it can be meaningfully brought forward to the dispatcher.
“Ultimately, the real intelligence is going to happen with the dispatcher having meaningful information brought to them that they can review, annotate and clip, and then send out to the first responder,” he said. “But that work flow doesn’t exist unless those platforms are interconnected, aware and interacting.”
Of course, high-bandwidth applications such as video are only practical where broadband is available. With spectrum and funding proposals still in limbo, it is unclear how broadband data throughputs will be made available to public safety with the kind of reliability and security first-response agencies have in their mission-critical voice networks.
While a few well-funded public-safety agencies in urban areas may be able to build their own private 4G broadband systems, Motorola officials said they expect most to combine with other government agencies or commercial operators to make high-bandwidth capabilities a reality.
Whether public-safety agencies build their own broadband networks, depend on a carrier to build them or have some time of combination, Motorola believes public safety will be better positioned if the 700 MHz D Block spectrum — set to be auctioned to a commercial operator under current law — is reallocated to the public-safety community. And, regardless of the business scenario, Motorola is prepared to provide solutions that will fit the needs of public-safety entities of all types, Brown said.
“There will be some instances where it will make complete sense for Motorola to do end-to-end, as well as manage services or hosted applications and taking care of the provisioning of the network end-to-end,” he said. “There will be other areas that might require a partnership with a carrier. We’re setting ourselves up where we can have the flexibility to accommodate either one, but we will build our own capabilities and competencies to where the more Motorola-centric solution will be differentiated and preferred.”