Will a Smartphone Replace Your Mobile Radio?

Will a Smartphone Replace Your Mobile Radio?

By Thom Dick May 29, 2016

Ask 100 emergency responders who’ve been to a major event what their worst challenge was and every single one of them will surely tell you: communications.

Their lives are getting easier, thanks to a dedicated band of the 700 MHz radio spectrum located just above that of digital TV broadcast channels. Band 14, as it’s called, was reserved for public safety providers by the Spectrum Act of 2012, using the LTE (Long-Term Evolution) technology featured in most 4G-enabled smartphones.

LTE has some valuable properties for emergency needs. It penetrates buildings and walls easily, and it covers large geographic areas with less infrastructure than higher frequencies. It’s also lightning-fast and highly reliable.

Eighteen vendors from around the United States gathered in Brighton, CO, on May 3 under the auspices of FirstNet Colorado to showcase evolving technologies for about 120 participating potential users.

Participants carried functional samples of personnel tracking devices and ruggedized cell phones with them throughout the day, while they kicked the tires of technology that has been in development throughout the United States for the past three years. The tracking devices recorded their attendance and movements, while the cell phones enabled them to communicate with one another, ushering them from room to room in response to a tight schedule.

FirstNet Colorado is coordinating the state’s efforts to prepare for a nationwide high-speed data and cellular voice network for public safety providers using LTE. Here’s how that might work, using technology that has been developed so far:

Imagine you’ve been called to a ski resort where skiers have reported a friend buried in an avalanche. The local ski patrol has called for a drone, and the drone patrols the avalanche area in search of the skier’s cell phone. (A cell phone emits a constant radio-frequency signal until its battery goes dead.) The drone’s operator uses a tablet to map a search area based on aerial photos, using a predetermined search strategy. The drone quickly conducts the search, and provides the rescue team with a GPS location before landing on a nearby ridge to maximize its battery life. From the ridge, it continues to accept and respond to commands while it transmits photos of the searchers’ progress.

Now imagine you’re with a SWAT team on the scene of a live shooting at a multi-story urban warehouse where two police officers have gone silent during a drug bust. Using 3D mapping software, the SWAT team locates both officers in different rooms on the second and third floors. The software enables a responder using a laptop to communicate with small sensors attached to the individual officers’ uniforms. An incident commander can view a 3D line drawing of the warehouse, including the locations of its internal features and showing the locations of the officers. Additional software communicates with more sensors, this time attached to flexible plastic panels (resembling x-ray film) inserted in the officers’ body armor. The film sensors detect and map the officers’ penetrating torso wounds.

Finally, suppose you’re at the scene of a wildland fire in a remote area where there is no phone coverage. A state patrol officer opens the lid of a ruggedized suitcase and sets up a complete communications center. Within 10 minutes, you can communicate voice and data at will with any resources you might need, on scene or not, ranging from the closest trauma center to FEMA. Your field units can communicate with one another using assigned frequencies on their normal LMR (land mobile radio) handy-talkies, or via tough, highly ruggedized LTE-equipped smartphones. In fact, they can also use PTT (push-to-talk) software on their phones to communicate in whichever mode they choose.

Agencies operating on Band 14 will be using LTE devices with five times the transmission power of a commercial cell phone. The system’s design is intended to provide 97% geographic coverage, and offers to address challenges like:

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  • Incidents in densely populated ones featuring large crowds using hundreds of personal cell phones simultaneously;
  • Interagency communication needs, including data such as real-time photos and some video; and
  • Mission-critical need-to-know things like emerging weather patterns, flood threats, hydrant locations, hospital availability, routes of ingress and egress, vehicle locations, personnel tracking and overall scope of the incident.

Can LTE cellular technology supersede the need for current radio systems? Experts disagree.

Craig Scherer, a fire systems technical specialist at the Denver Fire Department’s Communications Center, thinks the system would be too vulnerable to interference from public cell phone use. He said latency, the delay between transmitting a signal and receiving a usable answer, would also impair critical communications.

“LTE is fast,” says Ed Mills, FirstNet’s Colorado outreach and education manager, who moderated the conference. “It’s line-of-sight, and it happens at the speed of light. A transmission from the West Coast to the East Coast (of the United States) would happen in a fraction of a second. There’s no need for a signal to bounce off of a satellite.”

Mills said one variable of implementation time is that it depends on how promptly 'FirstNet's network partner' could comply with the system’s growth.

Recent history clearly illustrates the importance and effectiveness of this technology. Sonim, Mutualink, Parallel Wireless, Verizon and numerous other vendors partnered to help local public safety agencies provide Band 14 coverage for the Rose Parade on January 1, 2016, in Pasadena and at Super Bowl 50 on February 7, 2016, in San Francisco. Both of those events involved huge crowds of people (all using personal cell phones constantly), in atmospheres of heightened international security and massive media attention.

Vendors at the event included:

  • John Bohike demonstrated DataSoft’s AID or Automatic Injury Detection system. This plastic panel is inserted in the carrier of a ballistic vest. The small black sender in the lower left corner of the panel is a cellular transmitter. Within seconds of the panel being pierced by a projectile, it can report up to four wounds per panel to a land mobile radio (via Bluetooth), a cellular phone or a military radio. Visit www.datasoft.com.
  • ESChat provides a secure PTT utility and various other incident management software for ruggedized phones like Sonim XP7 Android. (It’s also Mac and iOS-compatible.) ESChat was used on Band 14 to coordinate the 2016 Rose Bowl, and was used interoperably with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s P25 land radio system. Visit www.eschat.com.
  • Sierra Wireless InMotion Solutions exhibited a number of hardware and software offerings, including a mobile communications gateway the size of a book. Mountable in the trunk of a squad car or under the seat of an ambulance, it creates a Wi-Fi “bubble” around a vehicle that connects it to the best available network—LTE Band 14 for public safety, with fallback to commercial LTE networks. Visit www.sierrawireless.com/gatewaysolutions.
  • TRX Systems provides NEON Personnel Tracker, an indoor 3D personnel locating system that uses pager-sized sensors, Windows-based command software and an Android app to dynamically map the movement of personnel once they enter a structure. Visit www.TRXsystems.com.
  • Unmanned Aircraft Systems exhibited a 24-inch, $75,000 Canadian unmanned quadcopter as one of a number of potential on-scene aircraft. Its (video and still) cameras, struts, motors, rotors, battery and electronics are all field-replaceable as individual modules. It can stay airborne for 45 minutes, has a functional line-of-sight range of 1 kilometer, and can be digitally controlled from a tablet. This device has been used at a range of up to seven miles. Visit www.unmannedexperts.com.

Thom Dick has been a passionate advocate of sick people and the safety of their field caregivers since 1970. He has written hundreds of articles and three books on those subjects, including the People Care books. You can reach Thom via Facebook, or at boxcar414@comcast.net.

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