Building a critical network of support for first responders

Tony Gray and TJ Kennedy explore the new technologies enabling better and more connected critical communications within the public safety sector

First responders such as police, fire and rescue and medical services have always relied on high-quality voice communications, built on designed-for-purposed narrowband technologies such as TETRA and P25 with dedicated network implementations and spectrum. The availability, security and reliability of these technologies infer on them the right to be termed ‘mission critical’, since lives can depend on the ability of the user to immediately connect and communicate.

These traditional narrowband technologies are very effective in their ability to carry mission critical voice services, and they also have some mission critical data capability such as sending short messages and images. However, with the availability of mobile broadband, the potential for harnessing a new range of critical data services to enhance the work of first responders is in the process of being realised.

Developing mission critical broadband
Currently, work is underway to specify mission critical features required by first responders for commercial LTE/4G networks and incorporate these into open technology standards. This work was first catalysed by TCCA in 2012, and development and testing work is ongoing in 3GPP to ensure the standards meet the needs of critical users, and that products and services under development adhere to the standards specifications. 3GPP is the organisation that unites telecommunications standards development bodies around the world and provides their members with a stable environment to produce the reports and specifications that define 3GPP technologies. TCCA is the 3GPP Market Representation Partner for critical communications, ensuring that the needs of the mission critical market are addressed in the standards development process.

Once the standards are specified, there needs to be a thorough testing process to help validate them, and to accelerate the time to market for mission critical products. These are called Plugtests™, and are run by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) – initially founded to serve European needs but now with a global perspective. ETSI is a 3GPP organisational partner and one of its roles is to help develop 4G and 5G mobile communications.

Earlier this year, ETSI completed its third MCX Plugtests™ event (MCX is the combined term for Mission Critical Push to Talk (MCPTT), MCDATA and MCVIDEO). These Plugtests ensure real world interoperability between implementations and open standards compliance. TCCA provides key technical support for the Plugtests, which are also endorsed by PSTA.

This work will eventually enable mobile broadband networks to have mission critical capability, and for first responders to take full advantage of the plethora of data services that can enhance their work in the protection of people and property.

The rise of the IoLST
As a complement to the emerging mission critical mobile broadband services, there is huge interest in the potential of the lifesaving side of the Internet of Things (IoT) and its applications, and how this network of connected devices can assist first responders.

There are billions of devices connected to the IoT, with sensors collecting and sharing data in real time, and there is a growing subset of the IoT known as the IoLST – the Internet of Life Saving Things. IoLST devices are those that help protect individuals, communities and infrastructure, and which can support first responders in their daily operations.

The availability and variety of these devices is increasing each day. They include sensors and devices in ‘smart’ cities, which are in many instances considered part of the IoLST and can be used to improve the response in an emergency. Examples of sensors that could be accessed to share critically important information in emergencies include those associated with street cameras, highway/traffic monitoring, building and public surveillance. Other applications include public panic buttons, facial recognition technology, and gunshot and audible recognition sensors.



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