If not now, when?
Whether it is an everyday emergency or a major incident, such as last year’s Gulf Oil spill, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the terrorist attacks of a decade ago, one sad truth remains: Citizens needlessly suffer because public-safety communications still are not fully interoperable.
As a fire chief with 32 years of experience, I can say with conviction that events happen every day — in both remote and urban areas — that would be greatly impacted by the creation of a nationwide public-safety broadband network. Such a communications network would make available to every first responder, from EMS workers to firefighters and police officers, standardized Long-Term Evolution (LTE) broadband technology.
For example, broadband-enabled mobile computers in the field would expand paramedics’ scope of care. Particularly in rural America, there is an ever-greater need for emergency-room physicians to remotely access biometrics, such as for diagnosis of heart arrhythmias. Wireless broadband access in an ambulance enables paramedics to access information about rare conditions, transmit photos or videos of the accident scene, and keep the receiving doctor updated on the patient’s condition in real-time.
Using Internet-enabled handheld devices to gather patient metrics allows crucial information to be transmitted to the medical team at the hospital in advance of arrival, which can save time and save lives. These capabilities are extremely important when patient transport times are long, as they are in remote parts of the United States — there are places in many western states where ambulance transport times can reach 1.5 hours.
Firefighters from Washington State to Washington, D.C., also need a nationwide broadband communications network that would allow them to share video and other critical data across city, county and state lines. Think about the numerous wildfires that recklessly tear across hundreds of acres throughout the western U.S. With a state-of-the-art network operating on the latest and fastest broadband technology, the men and women fighting these fires could access critical information in real-time to lessen the lives lost and properties damaged.
Firefighters, in a matter of seconds, could integrate topographical maps, GIS maps, and thermal and satellite imagery vital to their ability to stay a step ahead of these fires. Firefighters would be able to integrate this information with data gathered from remote weather stations to gauge wind direction and speed, as well as temperature. Planners in incident and command posts who need to make immediate decisions about where resources and firefighters are best deployed drastically can change the outcome of a fire by having a thorough understanding of the blaze at any given moment.
For day-to-day incidents in urban areas, a nationwide public-safety broadband network would enable firefighters to become more efficient. For road accidents, if responders remotely could view traffic cameras already deployed throughout cities across the nation, they could see exactly where an incident occurred and make informed decisions about the resources that should be sent to the scene, from ambulances to firefighters to hazmat crews. This will improve efficiency, reduce costs and — most importantly — save lives.
When firefighters respond to a commercial occupancy, the use of mobile data computers can make a huge difference in the outcome of the fire. Viewing the building diagram on a handheld device can provide key pieces of intelligence, such as where the fire-sprinkler connection, electrical supply shut-off and hydrants are located. While en route, they also can determine the type of construction, whether hazardous materials are present at the location, and who occupies the building and where they can be found.
A broadband communications network would allow firefighters, police and EMS workers to coordinate their efforts in real-time and best respond to incidents. It would provide video to facilitate instantaneous situational awareness of major fire and hazmat incidents. And the opportunities for new innovations within the field are endless. Future capabilities for emergency medical operations include portable EKGs and ultrasounds and field blood work — all transmitted to an emergency department and a physician many miles away. Law enforcement would use the wireless network for numerous applications, from field fingerprint identification to the rapid access of criminal records.
And let us not forget the unimaginable tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001. During the terrorist attacks, first responders’ communications systems simply failed. Police officers and firefighters could not talk to each other because of incompatible radios and overcrowded frequencies.
After more than a decade of debate and inaction, numerous pieces of legislation that would reallocate the 700 MHz D Block spectrum to public safety and provide funding for a nationwide, interoperable public-safety broadband network are working their way through Congress. In addition to the exciting futuristic capabilities that broadband would make possible, this dynamic network would enable all jurisdictions to communicate seamlessly during emergencies. Gone will be the costly retrofitted equipment, technology patches and system workarounds in use today.
The D Block must be reallocated and this network must be built, not only for the safety of our nation and the men and women who selflessly protect our country every day, but also for the economic benefits and jobs creation it will bring. Fire, police, sheriffs, paramedics and emergency managers stand united behind this effort. Congress should too.
Jeff Johnson is president of the Western Fire Chiefs Association.