Shoddy tech handcuffs emergency responders

First responders to emergency situations need bullet-proof technology, as the consequences of a dropped cell phone call or lost Internet connection could be tragic and irreversible.

But providing emergency responders in Canada the technology they need to do their job effectively is easier said than done, as one expert explains.

The first responder community here is disparate and dispersed, says Steve Palmer, director of the Ottawa-based Canadian Police Research Centre (CPRC), which acts as a central research clearinghouse. “It’s a very distributed community. We have 270 police services and multiples of that in fire and paramedics across Canada.”

Developing technology for the first responder community is a challenge. Vendors often work on a one-off basis with a local organization, but product field-testing, evaluation and deployment across this loose-knit community is difficult.

To address this issue, the CPRC recently partnered with the Ottawa-based Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) for guidance in designing a future testing facility and assistance in bringing the two communities – sellers and buyers of first responder technology – together.

As a first step, CATA completed a research study identifying the vendor community’s needs in April this year. “Canada doesn’t have an equivalent to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security,” says Kevin Wennekes, vice-president of research at CATA. “There is no industry or government database that clearly identifies who these vendors are.” The next step will be to define the first responder community’s needs, he adds.

At a high level, just staying on top of technology is a critical issue, says Palmer. “To me, the most problematic area is being able to get the most up-to-date technology out into the field as rapidly as possible,” he says. “Speed is more of an issue than lack of technology.”

According to Palmer, the interoperability – or lack thereof – of communications systems used by different emergency responders is also a huge issue, one tragically highlighted in the chaos of Sept. 11. With the cell phone communications meltdown near ground zero, police, fire and paramedics were unable to communicate with each other as each entity had a dedicated radio frequency.

“The issue that came up was that the three groups each had their own private wireless networks but none were connected to each other. This has pushed forward government desire to accelerate their interoperability,” says Calven Iwata, CEO of Sinclair Technologies Ltd., an Aurora, Ont.-based provider of radio antennae and filtering systems and services.

Public safety networks are typically land mobile radio networks, not cellular networks, explains Iwata. In both Canada and the U.S., radio channels are reserved for emergency use and regulated by government. These operate in frequency bands below one GHz, which are separate from bands used for WiFi, Bluetooth and other such commercial purposes. First responder groups control the number of users and other factors that may affect reliability.

Reliability, says Iwata, is the main issue. “First responders don’t typically use cell phones. Dropped calls are a huge problem, and sometimes these systems are too clogged up.”

In addition, there are issues with cell phones used in high buildings in dense urban concentrations – as was witnessed on September 11 in World Trade Center towers.

“In high buildings, cell phone signals sent above say, the 10th floor, will sometimes try to lock on multiple cell sites at once and will keep bouncing back and forth between them,” says Mike Macki, systems engineer at Sinclair Technologies.

More than five years after Sept. 11, the interoperability of emergency radio communications across the three groups has yet to be resolved. “Some manufacturers have come forward with equipment that facilitates that, but it is my understanding that it is not fully operational to the extent the government is expecting,” says Iwata.

Policy issues are the stumbling block, not technology, as there are already potential technical solutions commercially available, adds Macki. “You could have a trunk system where you can hop between frequencies, or an integrated system for police, fire and paramedic groups.”

First responder communications are a complex issue, says Alan Panezic, director at Waterloo-based Research in Motion Ltd. (RIM). “You may not necessarily want the police to be 100 per cent aware of all the things the fire department has to do all the time. That would generate a lot of extraneous information. And what if police and fire dispatchers are saying conflicting things?”

Law enforcement agencies have been rapid adopters of RIM BlackBerries, he says. The devices can transmit data messages even when cell phone lines are over-utilized.

“BlackBerries were able to get text messages through on Sept. 11, since the data travels in packets over the Internet,” says Panezic.

In the past, wireless carrier frequencies could be used for both data and voice communications. “Government bodies have fortified this, and they’ve taken the request for packet-based networking so far as to ask wireless carriers to have reserved channels for data transmissions, so there’s a back-up system even if cell phone lines are down,” explains Panezic.

He points out that BlackBerries have a range of uses for first responders that extend beyond communications. “First responder customers want to do more than just communicate – they want get access to national criminal databases, share procedures and so on.”

RIM “generalized” the wireless capabilities of the devices two years ago to allow third parties to build applications on top of the BlackBerry platform. “We’re wireless experts but not experts at interfacing with mugshot databases and other such applications, so we leave that to our partners to develop,” says Panezic.

Since RIM obtained the security certification needed for government buy-in for BlackBerries, RIM’s partners can design their applications without worrying about this aspect, he says. For example, Aether Systems Inc., a wireless provider based in Owings Mills, Md., has developed a software application called PocketBlue that allows law enforcement working major sports or concert events to cross-reference records from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and other criminal databases on BlackBerries.

Another partner in the U.K. has designed Kevlar holsters for BlackBerries so the devices can survive an attack, says Panezic.

“We’ve done a lot of work with the first responder community but we’ve only scratched the surface. Going forward, we need more partners who can bring their specialized knowledge so we can continue this collaboration,” he says.

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