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Seamless Coordination, Optimized Response: The Possibilities of FirstNet

Advances in technology in recent years have enabled an entirely new set of possibilities for integration and communications

By Gregory Bogosian
FireRescue1 Contributor

The following is paid content sponsored by Verizon

In public safety, we all share common goals: the protection of life, liberty, and property, with different approaches and priorities depending upon the agency type. Yet despite that commonality and the fact that we frequently end up at the same locations, a fundamental difficulty often remains: information to coordinate a response can only travel as fast as personnel can formulate and express it, and cannot be easily transferred to others in another service — even if we are literally standing next to them.

Photo courtesy Verizon

This, of course, isn’t news to anyone who’s ever worked in a dispatch center. We expect our personnel to translate what they see into spoken information even while they’re handling the incident itself, a difficult task under normal circumstances and a nearly impossible one during quickly-developing Mass Casualty Incidents or other large-scale responses. The bandwidth of the human voice, in other words, is relatively limited in how much data it can efficiently carry.

While those of us who have been in the field have learned how to make the best of the existing system and its limitations, great efforts have been made since 9/11 to improve these systems and to integrate technology between various agencies. Now, advances in technology in recent years have enabled an entirely new set of possibilities for integration and communications, offering the opportunity to transcend mere “interoperability” and achieve “co-operability” through the creation of “FirstNet.”

What is FirstNet? Under the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), FirstNet is proposed to be a central coordinating authority responsible for the creation and implementation of nationwide public safety broadband access standards. This will be achieved through the leveraging of existing commercial mobile broadband provider networks and the utilization of the newly-licensed 700MHz “D-block” of spectrum, along with other possible avenues and means for development and deployment currently under consideration.

What impact could FirstNet have on public safety agencies’ operations?

  • What if you could receive live video from your first responders, or transmit critical data directly to them in an easy-to-access format, while they’re at a scene?
  • What if your police officers or firefighters had the ability to create, view, and continuously transmit an infrared video of their surroundings to dispatch and their coworkers? Officers could see that firearm-bearing suspect hiding in a dark room. Firefighters could locate fire within walls and see victims in need of rescue. Other officers and firefighters, seeing those same streams in something like a heads-up display (“Golden-i,” a head-worn multi-function device by Kopin Corporation, Inc., is one good example), would have information enabling them to help their coworkers achieve their mission, or in circumstances where the unthinkable has happened, to come to their aid immediately while remaining safer themselves.
  • What if you could use basic biometric and environmental sensors to monitor the welfare of personnel who are out of sight or detect the presence of potentially toxic chemicals? Or if EMS personnel could bring a whole new meaning to the term “medical control” by using those same sensors to transmit a patient’s condition and status directly to an ED and, based on the guidance of a physician, provide pharmacological or procedural treatment on the spot?

Up until recently, however, the capability to do things like this was a pipe dream due to the high cost of building out infrastructure and the lack of a common bandwidth for carrying those transmissions reliably over large geographic areas. With FirstNet, however, smoother, faster real-world integration of advanced mobile-data-based systems for public safety operations is a real possibility.

What this means for public safety is possibly nothing short of a complete change in the way that we respond to incidents. For example, voice transmissions, along with two-way data and video streams, might be carried directly to devices which responders have on their person. In addition, FirstNet-compliant solutions may use such things as advanced GPS functionality to allow incident commanders and supervisors an entirely new level of management capability. They may be better able to allocate and track resources and personnel in response to what are often rapidly-changing circumstances, and as an incident evolves, effectively strategize a response towards the best possible outcome on the fly.

Believe it or not, preparations for all of these possibilities are already under way. Verizon is reaffirming its commitment to that goal by working with partner companies at their Verizon Innovation Centers, located in Waltham, MA and San Francisco, CA, to begin pre-development of technologies that take advantage of the new capabilities.  At the Innovation Centers, partner companies gain access to Verizon’s vast resources and mobile data networks in order to build new collaborative devices that take advantage of each of their organizational strengths and areas of expertise to build out more complete, advanced solutions. 

As the standards, practices, structures, and responsibilities of FirstNet are finalized in the coming months and years, these technologies may enable a new world of communications and response to any emergency scenario by bringing in both the best possible augmentation of currently available data, and instantaneous transmission of new modes of information, far above what the human eye can perceive, process, and convert into verbal communication on its own in a timely manner. The end result: help in achieving safer communities and emergency personnel, and a dramatic enhancement of the capabilities of our already-outstanding emergency service provider systems.

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