Mobile phones are the electronic milk carton

'Citizens can help themselves by becoming active participants in the law enforcement, firefighting, and EMT processes'

Editor's note: This article was created in partnership with Alcatel-Lucent for inclusion on their blog "LifeTalk." We present it here for our members in our ongoing effort to ensure that public safety professionals have access to online resources which enable informed decisions on matters related to interoperable communications.

If you want to know what's coming down the pike in multimedia mobile phone use, you need only look to the sister cities of Seattle, Washington and Kobe, Japan. Japanese mobile phone users — devices there are called 'keitai' — have long led the way in adoption of new mobile technologies, and among American cities, Seattle arguably has one of the most technically-savvy populations per capita.

Japanese users quickly gravitated to the diverse ways their devices allow them to interact with others. They supplement or supplant voice calls with text messages, captioned photos, and even streaming video images of what's going on around them. All those communications modes could be useful for reporting emergencies to public safety answering points (PSAPs), but the dispatch centers are seldom equipped to handle this traffic.

Prior to the mid-1990s, a witness to a crime on the streets of Kobe would have to find a pay phone or knock on a stranger's door to dial 110. By 1995, they might have a cellular phone installed in their car, or could flag down someone who did. Five years later, they probably owned a "candy bar" handset capable of making a voice call to an emergency dispatch center. Today, they can take a photo of the incident scene or a suspect, silently tap out a text message to avoid being noticed by a criminal, or capture a video clip they can send to the police or fire department.

Let's go back to the abovementioned 1995 scenario, but take that to a mass-casualty extreme. While Kobe — the sixth-largest city in Japan — was largely spared the levels of devastation seen elsewhere in the country when the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck in March 11, 2011, the city suffered immense loss during the 'Great Hanshin' earthquake on January 17, 1995. Had citizens had the ability to send their first responders images and videos of the most badly affected areas, the death toll could have been lower.

In the aftermath of that deadly disaster, the citizens of Kobe demanded that Japanese warning systems and public safety response capabilities be significantly upgraded. Given the view of Kobe's citizens in 1995, and the global horror at the potential nuclear disaster in Japan today, one must surmise that there will be little forgiveness if Japanese first responders don't soon leverage a 4G mobile broadband network.

Moving Toward the Modern-day Milk Carton
Bill Schrier is the chief technology officer for the City of Seattle. "I think citizens can help themselves by becoming active participants in the law enforcement, firefighting, and EMT processes," says Schrier. "Something like 97 percent of the population carries a cell phone, and about two thirds of those phones are smartphones — many of which have integrated cameras. All of a sudden, every citizen can become something of a deputy police officer, or a potential support person for firefighters and EMTs."

Schrier says that whether or not a citizen's photograph or video sent to the call center actually leads to an immediate arrest may less important than the mere fact that the public has become more engaged in the public safety ecosystem.

"Just think of the sense of empowerment you're giving that citizen in the first place," Schrier says. "You're giving them the ability to participate in the safety and wellbeing of their own community in a whole new way. You're giving them the opportunity to say, 'I helped my government. I helped my public safety'."

That multimedia interaction needs to flow in both directions. To visualize what the future holds in this regard, just consider the way Amber Alerts work at present. Supplementing the alert being sent to TV and radio stations, direct alerts are sent to individual citizens who opt into the system. Subscribers to this system get a simple SMS message — text only — on their mobile phone.

Think back a few years to the old milk cartons with the faces of missing children on them. How did we go from a picture and a description to a 140-character message on our phones? The conduit shrunk to a point that it could not handle images. Wouldn't those wireless Amber Alerts be vastly more effective if they included a picture of the child or a small clip of video surveillance taken at the time of the child's abduction?

Most of the obstacles to implementation of rich media in public safety communications are workflow-related. Local government budgets are shrinking and telecommunicators are already overloaded with the voice and data traffic they have to handle. Computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems aren't designed for processing text, photos, and video from the public, and there is no utility for transmitting this kind of information back to citizens.

Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are already filling in some of the communications gaps, at least in the outgoing sense. Citizens may not be able to send photos, text messages and video to their first responders, but they can receive this kind of information should they choose to do so. Many agencies have established accounts on Facebook and Twitter for the express purpose of getting time-sensitive information to their service population. Unfortunately, those conduits are only as reliable as the network infrastructure the citizen uses.

Good, But Not Good Enough
The most common question — especially from cash-strapped legislators and city counselors — is, "Why can't we just use the commercial carrier services? They've got 3G wireless service offerings with data capabilities. They've got 4G wireless offering with significantly more data capabilities.

They've got these technologies. Why don't we just use those commercial services? That's what we do now for non-mission critical applications!"
4G LTE networks will help resolve this dilemma by virtue of their greater capacity to carry information, as soon as the technology has penetrated the market sufficiently to realize the increased bandwidth and better reliability.

The answer, of course is that you don't want to have mission-critical public safety data communications competing with every teenager's "LOL" message to their friends. The fact is, today the everyday iPhone has got the same priority as the cop or firefighter's computer in their vehicle on commercial networks.

Those networks don't have sufficient provisioning or prioritization for the public safety user over that consumer user. That may not be an issue today, but as more and more people begin to consume things like TV and real-time video feeds, those networks will get congested.

Among the first things to fail in the event of a large scale natural disaster or a major terrorist attack are the mobile carrier networks. Despite the success of those networks in handling the deluge of texts, pictures, videos, 'Tweets,' and Facebook posts during protest events in the United States and throughout the Middle East this spring, that volume of traffic is nothing in comparison to what would likely happen in a major catastrophe.

A partial solution to this problem is to provision Smartphones used by public safety officers to have priority access to the network when the channels are saturated. This would ensure that first responders could reach citizens and each other in a crisis. What it doesn't address is how the system will respond to the inevitable multiple reports and calls for help that come when disaster strikes.

Without human intervention, there is no way to determine whether the report of floodwaters, a brush fire, or an active shooter is the same one already received and in process, or a new incident as yet unreported. Asking the citizen to prioritize his own call isn't going to work — when water is coming over your threshold, you're going to view it as an emergency, no matter what other people might be dealing with.

4G LTE networks will help resolve this dilemma by virtue of their greater capacity to carry information, as soon as the technology has penetrated the market sufficiently to realize the increased bandwidth and better reliability.

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