Protecting first responders and citizens starts with a fast, reliable network
In early 2023, those who took to the skies for travel had a sudden change in plans when the FAA’s Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system failed for the first time in history. Because NOTAM is an essential tool for relaying mission critical communications to pilots and ground operatives, a lengthy ground stop was issued. With no backup system in place, tens of thousands of flights were delayed or cancelled.
For the most part, the worst to come of the NOTAM failure was a few long nights for airline staff and passengers alike. But when mission critical communications fail in the line of duty, first responders and citizens can be left in life or death situations. When it comes to public safety, there is no room for lack of connectivity.
What does ‘mission critical communication’ mean?
In the realm of public safety, mission critical communications refer to any communication that a life depends on. This includes verbal “shoot, don’t shoot” orders, sensors reading oxygen levels of firefighters, vitals sent from an ambulance to a doctor waiting at a hospital, coordinates dispatched to an airlift, and more. To put it plainly, these communications must work at all times; they cannot fail.
Mission critical communications also include use cases found among utility agencies that rely on IoT applications and alert systems that notify staff and the public of potential hazards or current dangers.
The evolution of first responder communication needs
The tragedy of Sep. 11, 2001, put a spotlight on the inability of public safety agencies to communicate cross-functionally when networks are overloaded. This led to the creation of dedicated spectrum through the First Responder Network Authority, which gives police, EMS, fire, and other critical service communications network priority and preemption during emergencies.
Since then, agencies across the globe have continued to explore and integrate 5G and LTE connectivity in vehicles, stations, and mobile command centers and other temporary locations. These cellular connections give public safety agencies a flexible, future-proofed solution that can scale to include new IoT integrations such as streaming video, biometric sensors, AI, and robotics.
On top of that, coverage in notoriously hard-to-reach areas is improved with cellular, which makes transmitting critical data to and from the field seamless, regardless of where first responders are located.
Protecting an always-on network
As public safety needs evolve, so do network resiliency needs. Using cellular as a primary or secondary connection allows agencies to connect the unconnected and reduces the likelihood of a network being knocked entirely offline, which can put citizens and first responders at risk. These redundant measures are established at permanent or temporary locations using dual WAN routers, as well as in vehicles using dual modem routers.
In the field, the question of “Do I have connectivity?” quickly transitions to, “What do I have access to?” Zero trust implementation — expanded upon with a ZTNA solution that restricts access for certain vendors or employees — protects networks without putting roadblocks between first responders and their duties. This allows first responders to be rapidly equipped information so they can make informed decisions without having to just rely on their gut.
Addressing the pain points of technological growth
A key goal among public safety agencies worldwide is to reduce the chasm between first initiators (the people who call emergency dispatch) and first responders (the individuals who are first on scene). Technological advancements in the form of 5G or LTE adoption make this possible. Not only that, but mission critical communications between headquarters and individuals in the field awaiting instruction also improve with cellular integration.
But no advancement in technology or communication comes without some amount of struggle. For many agencies — particularly those in rural locations — onboarding new technologies isn’t just a matter of plugging in the next best thing. Legacy assets, equipment, and even vendors must be supported just as much as new ones until they can be fully integrated or phased out. Creating a cohesive system of interoperability is a vital step for successfully moving mission critical communications into the era of 5G for first responders.
The human element of onboarding can also be a challenge. From securing funding to gaining buy-in from users who expect consumer-driven interfaces, technological growth in public safety agencies must be meticulously planned, from training to deployment and ongoing management. This type of planning, however, doesn’t have to be done alone.
An organization known as the Mission Critical Alliance serves as a collaborative space for best-of-breed technology partners to “advance the capabilities, compatibility, and security of mission critical solutions.” Their work simplifies the procurement and integration of new technology — including 5G — within first responder agencies, ultimately improving the safety of emergency services and beyond.