Location data is sorely missing in emergency response—with dire consequences
What is in this article?
The resiliency of data
Even without an attack, the communications difficulties observed in the 2010 response to Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—which dumped 4.9 billion barrels of oil into the water, with severe environmental and economic consequences—were telling. Coordinating 30,000 land, air and sea response assets, clearly demonstrated the need to organize emergency communications. A similar scenario occurred with Hurricane Katrina, which was the costliest natural disaster, as well as one of the deadliest, in our history. How many lives could we have saved, or how much more effective would the response have been, had enhanced situational awareness been available?
One of the most interesting components of this debate over time is that it is not only always about voice communications. As much as voice is the preferred way to communicate during a fast-moving incident, data has some significant advantages in today’s technology environment.
Voice is very sensitive to signal loss or weak signals, and this has only worsened over time. While analog voice often can be heard behind the static when there is a low signal, digital voice is either there or it is not. If the signal strength doesn’t meet the design threshold, then the voice communication isn’t delivered. In contrast, the advantage of data—such as the transmission of location information—is that it is tolerant to intermittent signal loss. Data and IP packets will continue trying to transmit as the signal fades in and out, thereby increasing the chance of success for delivery. Situational awareness technology has numerous benefits and can deliver lifesaving information when voice technology is intermittent or not available.
In an LMR environment, thousands of radio messages can congest voice systems during large responses, most of which can be removed by enabling the visualization of real-time vehicle and first-responder positions, freeing up critical tactical voice communications channels. Other information—such as weather, resource availablity and mapping—also are very well suited for data traffic and resource visualization.
This capablity for first responders is sparsely available today at a high cost and with limited standards to ensure interoperatlity. Creating a system that is of a scale that can protect first responders and the citizens they serve only can be coordinated and led by the federal government. This is not done by creating mandates. Instead, it is done by providing leadership and building broad-base support. This broad-base support should include the major public-safety associations such as APCO, NENA, IAFC and IACP.
Additionally, there is one significant technology on the horizon that will make all of this possible: the FirstNet network, which will be built via public private partnerships. These partnerships will allow data radio coverage far in excess of today’s LMR public-safety systems, because such partnerships would involve wireless carriers and satellite data providers.
The emergency services need certain tools—including location technology—in order to effectively respond to the incidents—both small and large—that will continue to occur in the U.S, and stay safe while doing so. Coordinating these technologies—as well as defining the core system scope, business rules, system governance and the business model—will not happen unless federal leadership makes it a priority.
Richard Mirgon is a partner at Presidential Partners Consulting. He is a former president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) and a former member of the Public Safety Alliance, and has more than 30 years of local government and first responder experience.