Public Safety Gets the D Block: What it Means for EMS

How can we harness the potential of 700MHz to truly benefit the EMS provider in the field?


On February 17, Congress officially allocated 10 MHz of the 700 MHz radio band to public safety.

Known as the D Block, this spectrum had been much sought after by wireless carriers for commercial service. But in a move that could restore one’s faith in politics, Congress put public service over profit and gave the D Block to police, fire and EMS, along with $7 billion to build a national first responder broadband network.

Once in place, this network will provide EMS, fire and police agencies with broadband, interoperable two-way communications nationwide. With the right equipment—likely hardened smartphones and tablets built to the commercial wireless carriers’ 4G/LTE standard—EMS staff will be able to send and receive data, video, audio and medical instrument readings from their ambulances directly to receiving hospitals. The system lacks voice capability, but this may be overcome with VoIP or mixed broadband/voice bandwidth in the same device.

“The significance of this for EMS communications capability cannot be overstated,” says Kevin McGinnis, communications technology advisor for several top national EMS associations. “It can be compared to what happened when ambulances were first equipped with two-way radios back in the early 1970s. It is that big a jump.”

The 700 MHz D Block network will be built by, licensed to and managed by the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), an independent body to be formed under the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. FirstNet’s 15-member board of directors will include the secretary of Homeland Security, the Attorney General and the director of the Office of Management and Budget, plus three members representing state and tribal governments and three public safety professionals (active or retired). The other six members will likely include representation from wireless manufacturers and carriers. Under the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act (H.R. 3630), which included the D Block decision, FirstNet’s board must be established by August 20.

“Once FirstNet’s board is in place, the process of building out the nationwide broadband network will begin,” says Chief Jeff Johnson, CEO for the Western Fire Chiefs Association. “There’s a lot of work to be done before we actually see broadband equipment in the nation’s first responder vehicles, but at least we’ll finally be on the right course.”

Imagining the Potential

It is easy to spout technical platitudes regarding 700 MHz’s capabilities for EMS. But what will it really mean for an EMS technician responding to a crash? McGinnis offers a scenario.

“Let’s say you’re the first EMS responder on the scene, approaching the scene of a two-car collision on foot,” he says. “You are wearing a small camera and lip microphone, both connected by your LTE first responder handset to your state’s FirstNet network. As you approach the first car, you start giving a voice description of your impressions. Beyond going to dispatch, your audio is automatically converted to text and begins to be compiled in an accident database.”

As the scenario continues, you get to the first victim, who is injured but conscious, breathing and not bleeding. You connect a multi-vital sign monitor, and its data is relayed through the FirstNet network to a second database. It is also reviewed by dispatch for use in assigning a receiving hospital. Meanwhile, live video of the victim and their condition is captured and stored in a third database for immediate and later access by other medical professionals, as need be.

On to the second car. Again you describe what you see, with the information stored automatically in the first database. You apply a second monitor, again recording live video that streams to dispatch for real-time assessment and storage in the appropriate database. As you work, dispatch uses the time to access the victims’ medical records and send their data to you to help inform treatment decisions.

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