Technology Is Making Us Safer, But Always More Work To Be Done
*This article is part of IPS’ July focus on technology and its impact on public safety.*
There have been great advancements within public safety technology that have helped make communities safer and first responders more capable.
However, there are always gaps present and areas in need of improvement. Major incident responses—such as Sept. 11 or Superstorm Sandy—exposed issues that need to be resolved to improve public safety response. As a result of the after-action reviews of these major incidents there was a national push to improve technology, especially technology involved in communications.
Interoperability and Communication Challenges
During the response to the Sept. 11 terror attacks, it became evident that public safety agencies needed to improve interoperability. Public safety agencies had to find a way to overcome differences in equipment and communication frequencies that hindered communication among agencies and across jurisdictions.
This was not a new issue, but Sept. 11 highlighted just how serious the problem had become due to the large scale and complex nature of the response. As a result of the after-action reporting and the results of the 9/11 Commission’s investigation, it was determined that the country needed a communication network that was useable by all responders. There needed to be a standardized communication network for all agencies so everyone could talk to each other and get critical information immediately.
The result was the creation of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet). This organization is tasked with creating a communications and information network to allow first responders to function within joint operations or on large-scale incidents without loss of communications or network capability, even if the system is overloaded or responders are from different jurisdictions. According to FirstNet.gov:
“The FirstNet organization is the first of its kind. Never before has Congress established an independent government authority with a mandate to provide specialized communication services for public safety. Using nationwide 700 MHz spectrum, FirstNet will put an end to decades-long interoperability and communications challenges and help keep our communities and emergency responders safer.”
FirstNet is in the development and design phase, but moving forward quickly despite the magnitude of the project. Initial research and design was started shortly after 9/11 and is being done in deliberate phases to ensure the network will actually meet the intended use.
Advances in Cellular Alerts and Reverse 911
Great advances have been made with cellular alert broadcasting and reverse 911 systems. Before cellular networks and mobile computing, the public relied on television and radio stations to receive emergency alerts.
Now, citizens receive alerts on their cell phones for anything from severe weather to Amber Alerts. Public safety agencies can also customize these alerts, allowing some to be mandatory and others to be subscription based.
Reverse 911 will continue to become more robust as technology advances. This system is able to call registered numbers within a select geographic region to alert individuals and provide emergency information or instructions. The system has grown to include the ability to register numbers that operate voice-over-internet protocol (VOIP) systems.
The ability to register cell phone numbers is an area for improvement in future upgrades, but is an important consideration (as was the VOIP upgrade) because many homes have moved away from traditional communication lines to mobile networks.
The Need for Constant Change
There will always be a need for new and improved tools because public safety agencies are constantly adapting to meet the needs of the community. Emergencies and major responses will continue to force public safety professionals to re-examine such tools and work to minimize gaps in those systems.
[Related Article: Leading Change in Public Safety]
The public deserves the best response to any incident and public safety professionals deserve the best tools possible to make that happen. We are only as strong as the weakest link in the chain—outdated and inefficient technology should not be that weak link.
About the Author: Giles Hoback serves as adjunct faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Public University. He has more than 20 years of experience in public safety and is a retired Lieutenant (O-3) with the U.S. Coast Guard. His experience includes tactical law enforcement, emergency response, incident command, anti-terrorism, narcotics, and homeland security. He has held leadership roles, written training and response plans, is a firefighter with advanced training, and is a member of the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM). His passion for serving others is matched only by his passion for training and educating others to do the same. Contact him at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @PublicSafetyEDU.