Public safety communications technology advances globally

As countries look to introduce broadband data for their public safety organisations using either shared, hybrid or dedicated networks, it is vital that end-to-end security is built in from the start, writes George Rice, executive director, the Industry Council for Emergency Response Technologies

Public safety communications technology advances globally

The speed of technical progress has always exerted great influence on our society. Trans-continental railways, the telegraph, and even canals across the Isthmus of Panama and through the Suez all helped to connect humanity in ways not possible before the advent of these transportation and communications advances.  

Many leaps in connectivity have certainly occurred prior to and since, and more will follow. And, indeed public safety communications as we know it today represents a vault forward.  

But what is next for public safety as citizens, residents and visitors around the globe seek to contact emergency services in times of need, and for first responders and control room professionals as they look to manage and deploy emergency response assets? The following may illustrate by keen example, aspects of the future to come.

Hybrid mobility
In Europe, public safety agencies have been working with technology providers to advance the mobility of broadband data, specifically solving the problem of getting it into public safety vehicles. In solving this problem, there are three options.

The first involves building dedicated broadband networks for authorities. The second is to use a commercial provider with special deals to offer the data capacity required. The third includes several hybrid solutions, either combining dedicated and commercial networks or using multiple commercial ones.

Tests conducted in various locations across the US and Europe prove that hybrid commercial network use is a viable solution that can be later improved by adaptation of dedicated networks. This observation has already led to the implementation of a fully commercial network-based solution in Scandinavia.

This fully commercial solution does not limit the usage of dedicated networks. Rather, because of a lack of sufficient frequencies, it has proven as the only way to achieve the same goals in many countries so far.

The key element of this solution is a managed multichannel router, such as the one provided by Goodmill Systems. It enables easier, secure sharing of confidential information.

For example, it is now possible to call up a suspect’s criminal record, any outstanding/previous fines or even vehicle information. With this approach, all the needed office tasks can be performed on the spot, while required documents can be created and printed immediately.

Users claim that cooperation has been elevated to an entirely new level. Information is more transparent thanks to task handling, shared blogs and the collection of statistics. The reliability of data transmission and sharing of critical information has and continues to improve significantly.

Misunderstandings are reduced because different patrols can now locate each other from a shared map resource. This has led to gains in the command-and-control chain, with field management proving more efficient thanks to better allocation of resources.

Authorities have been extremely satisfied with Goodmill’s multichannel system. With capabilities for new applications, this technology continues to improve field operations and management. Also the addition of a dedicated LTE network to the solution is possible at any point, also providing a future-proof solution. It has already been shown that this technology saves time, resources, money and lives.

Network security
In the US, with the passage of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) came into being, advancing an objective that states had been working toward for years. A culmination of recommendations from the states, public safety communities and the 9/11 Commission, FirstNet will create a state-of-the-art, nationwide, interoperable wireless broadband network.

The goal of FirstNet is to make it easy for first responders and other emergency personnel to access and exchange mission-critical information from state and federal agencies, geospatial information, real-time video from crime scenes and sensor data from disaster sites, as well as simply talk to one another across multi-jurisdictional lines.

FirstNet is currently in the network design phase, and security industry experts are encouraging that security be built in up front – rather than being patched on as an afterthought.

‘If we’re going to build a network for public safety, we have to make sure network and device security is a primary consideration during the design phase,’ says Patrick Flynn, director of homeland and national security programs for McAfee.

‘Not only will building security in at the beginning make the security better and more robust, but it also will drive down enterprise cost. A little bit of investment on the front end can save potentially millions of dollars on the back end. And what’s more, law enforcement and other first responders can have actionable information at their fingertips quickly, efficiently and securely.’

And, while details of how FirstNet will be secured are still up in the air, McAfee has provided insights on network security in general. In short, securing a network involves three components:

• The Network Backbone – This is the network itself. Protecting a network historically involved multiple solutions - firewalls, email gateways, intrusion prevention systems and more. However, next generation firewalls bring these together to protect everything coming into and going out of the network.

• Mobility Tools – These are the devices. And devices are a keystone of this network; FirstNet is being built, in part, to accommodate the varying devices carried by public safety personnel. These devices must be secure so as not to compromise the entire network, the information on it and all of the users attached to it. Endpoint security solutions protect devices and include anti-virus, email protection, and encryption and compliance solutions.

• Applications – FirstNet is also being built with the intention of accommodating user-created apps. While these apps will surely prove mission critical, they will likely not be secure, opening the network to further vulnerabilities. These applications will need malware protection to guard the apps, users and the network.

A secure-from-the-start FirstNet will allow law enforcement and other emergency personnel to get the information they need quickly, efficiently, and, most importantly, securely. This kind of deep-level security can quickly identify and remediate threats while allowing the access and availability first responders need.

Further advances
The regimen of the 21st century worldwide economy and lifestyle bears only a fleeting resemblance to that of past eras. We are significantly more mobile and far more connected, and confronted each day with a host of competing interests, both personal and professional. And the pace seems only to be increasing.  

If the emergency communications industry is to continue to deploy the best of the best in technologies, reconciling the complexities of our now multi-dimensional world with the conventional practices of public safety communications is a challenge that the public and private sectors must address sooner rather than later – as many indeed are – as this partner community has done for decades.

The author... George S. Rice is Executive Director of the Industry Council for Emergency Response Technologies (iCERT) in the US, which represents the voice of the commercial sector in the emergency communications field

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