The need for speed
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Whether IP-based mobile broadband connectivity is delivered via a private network or one owned and operated by a commercial carrier, such capability costs money. Unfortunately, funding often has been difficult for the EMS community to secure.
“We've had an identity crisis in EMS — are we a public-health or a public-safety organization?” said Jerry Overton, CEO for the Richmond Ambulance Authority in Richmond, Va. “That's never been clear, so I think that's why we haven't had a big voice at the national level.”
Indeed, when federal lawmakers discuss public health, the focus — and funding — tends to be on hospitals and doctors. When the topic is public safety, police and fire initiatives tend to get the bulk of appropriations, while EMS typically takes a back seat.
McGinnis said this phenomenon also has been observed at the state level, noting that EMS initiatives were little more than a “token” in many statewide interoperability plans submitted to the federal government as part of the public-safety interoperable communications grant program. (See story, page 24.)
“My temptation is to say that EMS just gets left behind,” McGinnis said. “We are our own worst enemy in EMS, in that we fail to make our needs known effectively. We are therefore often not at the right tables to get resources.”
Paul Wittkamp, EMS communications manager for Wisconsin, said he has “made enough of a pest of [himself]” to ensure that EMS is included in grant funding for hospital preparedness and homeland security. In addition, EMS is being included in interoperability efforts when large metropolitan areas upgrade their LMR systems, he said.
However, 70% of Wisconsin's EMS departments are volunteer organizations — often operated in concert with a volunteer fire department. Such a high percentage of volunteer units is commonplace throughout the nation, according to sources interviewed for this story.
While these volunteer entities may want the capabilities associated with mobile broadband connectivity, finding a way to pay for such communications is a barrier that will be difficult to overcome, said John Powell, senior consulting engineer for the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC).
“Fire and EMS for the small volunteer departments are so underfunded, they're lucky to be able to buy gas,” he said.