Emergency Communications Organisation | www.emergencycomms.org
Issue 01 Journal
Inform | Communicate | Respond
Issue 01 - Spring 2013

“There’s an APP for That”

Integrating Smartphones with Public Safety Communications

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iPhone Home Screen. Photo: © Covia Labs.
iPhone Home Screen.
Photo: © Covia Labs.

Watch any Local News broadcast these days and you will likely see photos or videos sent in of newsworthy events from viewers taken by their smartphones. As smartphones have become more and more ubiquitous, they have become an extension of the eyes and ears of the media. Law enforcement and emergency management officials have long sought solutions to extend that concept to Public Safety Communications, and several apps that promise to do just that, are now available and in development.

For example, in our increasing mobile world, texting is surpassing voice calls as the preferred method of communications among many smartphone users. While most Emergency Services agree that a voice call into 9-1-1 is preferred, responders and telecom providers recognize that the ability to text a 9-1-1 operator could be a lifesaver under circumstances where an emergency voice call could not be safely made.

Pioneer Cellular is one of the first service providers to offer 9-1-1 text messaging capability. The wireless provider recently partnered with Intrado, to provide that company’s TXT29-1-1 service to Pioneer subscribers. In a company Press Release announcing the partnership and new service, Jeff Martin, Pioneer’s Vice President of Sales and Service said, “We are pleased to partner with Intrado to further enhance safety services for our wireless customers. TXT29-1-1 will provide our wireless users with speech or hearing disabilities the same access for assistance in emergency situations as those who dial 9-1-1.”

According to the National Emergency Number Association, (NENA) the “Big Four” wireless providers in the U.S. - Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile, are all working on deployment of nationwide “Text to 9-1-1” initiatives. The “Big Four” entered into an agreement with NENA and The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) in December 2012 to deploy nationwide Text to 9-1-1 to all subscribers by May 2014.

However, there is much more to integrating smartphones with Public Safety Communications than leveraging them only on the consumer end. Communication Chiefs and Emergency Managers recognize that first responders are usually carrying their own smartphones or other mobile devices in the field. Public Safety officials are working with providers and software developers to create and deploy apps that allow First Responders to use their own smartphones for Emergency Comms in situations where radio communications become difficult or impractical.

Policewoman filming a demonstration with her smartphone. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5
Policewoman filming a demonstration with her smartphone.
© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5

Responders Being Left to Their Own Devices

One such platform that allows Law Enforcement and Rescue Response to integrate consumer smartphones and other commercial-off-the-shelf mobile devices into their operations has been recently rolled-out by Covia Labs. The solution, known as Alert & Respond was designed by engineers with Covia to expand the command and control, and the situational awareness capabilities available to First Responders and other public safety operatives “beyond what is available with voice-only communication.”

Public safety officials and “boots on the ground” responders have long known that today’s smartphones have a lot of functions that could be very useful in public safety situations. These include such rich features as the ability to geotag photos or video, and using global positioning systems (GPSs) to pinpoint user’s locations. Yet, until the release of apps such as Alert& Respond, there really have not been solutions that allow public safety to optimize the use of these features.

According to Covia, using the platform, “Dispatchers can instantly send pertinent information such as suspect profiles, casualty reports and the location of other responders and staging areas to personnel. Witnesses can upload video of the crime and police can access surveillance video from their iPhone. Firefighters can access maps of triggered smoke detectors and locations of hydrants and hoses. A commanding officer can take control of responding units while en route to the scene.”

New mobile app turns mobile devices into “virtual radios” for first responders. Photo: © Raytheon.
New mobile app turns mobile devices into “virtual radios” for first responders.
Photo: © Raytheon.

Beyond text messaging, sharing of images, and GPS, the complete capabilities of the system include: National Incident Management System administration, push-to-talk, talk-around capabilities when a user is beyond the range of a cell tower, and “blue force” tracking location of personnel in real time.

Raytheon has also released an app that can turn a First Responder’s smartphone or tablet computer into a “virtual radio.” Raytheon demonstrated its application at the 2012 APCO annual conference and exposition in Minneapolis. According to Raytheon, the mobile app complements traditional communications through the Land Mobile Radio (LMR) public safety network. First responders can use conventional radios within the network, and when out of the coverage area, turn to the mobile app on the device of their choice.

In a company Press Release, announcing the launch of the app, TJ Kennedy, director of Public Safety and Security for Raytheon's Network Centric Systems business said, "This versatile mobile application allows first responders to communicate over the data network when they are out of LMR coverage range or when a redundant form of voice communication is needed. Responding officers can now establish direct voice communications with officials and experts who aren't on the public safety radio system, thereby providing valuable, real-time collaboration." He added, “It also allows personnel to reach back to their home network from anywhere in the world where they have PC, tablet or smartphone access.”

Challenges Remain

True, there are still many issues that need to be addressed, and challenges to be overcome before the integration of consumer-centric, feature-rich, multimedia communications and Emergency Comms become a reality.

As the debate continues in Washington and among Public Safety Agencies and the private sector about the best path towards adoption of FirstNet, the proposed and funded public safety broadband network, these new apps and services are providing ways for Responders to leverage sophisticated broadband features and devices for public safety in the near term.

Such solutions represent the first wave of what will soon be a total transformation of the way public-safety operations are conducted, and are already improving communication and the effectiveness of emergency response.

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