From the 9/11 attacks to cases like the Uvalde mass shooting in early 2022, it’s dangerously evident that the results are catastrophic when critical communications don’t operate at the necessary levels.
The US has made tremendous progress in mitigating the radio issues that plagued the first responders in New York on 9/11. However, the industry is still facing significant challenges. Three of those challenges are network availability, interoperability issues and a widespread dependence on mobile devices and equipment and training failures.
That is why further advancements in critical communications technology are needed and companies are supplying modern devices on reliable networks that eliminate or diminish the impact of these shortfalls and make work for critical personnel safer.
As the US learned after 9/11, interoperability is crucial for first responders, which is the ability to communicate across agencies and jurisdictions.
The 9/11 Commission released a report in 2004 detailing the communication failures at Ground Zero and throughout the New York City area. With so many agencies responding simultaneously, radio frequencies and channels varied depending on the agency and communication between organizations was extremely limited.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) specifically refers to the ability to communicate across radio systems as one of the factors that prevented 343 firefighters and 60 officers of the NYPD and Port Authority from being evacuated from the North Tower before its collapse. All 403 perished.
It took another eight years after the 2004 report for Congress to launch the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) to provide the first nationwide public safety broadband network for public safety entities. FirstNet gives first responders an advantage in day-to-day operations, disaster response and recovery, but it isn’t foolproof, nor does it have unlimited capacity. Despite dating back to 2012, FirstNet is still considered to be in its infancy while continuing to face both funding and hardware availability issues.
Interoperable communications remain a significant issue facing public safety officials and first responders.
Today’s public safety communication systems are located in seven different radio spectrums. Additionally, there is no standardization on radio type, such as VHF or UHF. This segmentation can prevent agencies (police and fire or city, county, state and federal) from being able to communicate with each other during routine incidents, especially during major disasters when instant communications can save both property and human life.
The second major issue facing critical communications is network availability. This was another issue prevalent on 9/11 but has proven to be much more troublesome in recent years.
With interoperability presenting a roadblock in communication during large-scale events, many first responders turn to their personal devices to try and circumvent the roadblock. Additionally, law enforcement has adopted software as a service (SaaS) video solutions — deployed over commercially available mobile networks such as carrier LTE — for use in many security and public safety surveillance systems. However, there are several issues with using commercially available mobile networks.
First, cellular wireless networks are often shut down as the first line of defense whenever there is a terrorist attack to prevent possible remote detonation of bombs. That means anyone hoping to depend on such wireless networks would find their devices rendered useless. Second, mobile networks are almost always flooded with calls during large-scale tragedies like 9/11 and mass shootings.
Take the Aurora Colorado movie theater shooting that occurred in 2012. A Policing Institute “After Action Report” says that 911 operators received exactly 100 calls within 22 minutes. A similar report from Police1 says that during the Las Vegas Route 91 shooting in 2017, operators received 62 calls simultaneously and approximately 600 in the first two hours.
At times, the sheer number of calls froze their system. Not only can those calls overwhelm the 911 response system, but they also overload the mobile networks. Carrier networks cannot accommodate every phone being used at the same time.
Finally, in natural disasters, towers can quite literally be destroyed or knocked offline, magnifying problems with network availability. We see this happen during every hurricane, earthquake, major fire and flood.
Furthermore, infrastructure challenges could hit rural communities harder than larger cities if reception is already poor; those communities may not receive alerts or warnings of imminent danger.
This is why innovative technology that can establish fully independent mobile mesh networks over large, remote areas should be a standard for emergency responders.
Equipment and training failures
Some challenges to critical communications exist because of the type of technology in use or a lack of training to use the technology available.
If we go back to the Aurora example we looked at regarding network availability, the police department faced another issue. The After Action Report noted a need for more familiarity with the radio system the department was using, which made a bad situation even worse.
Technological advancements are great — they can move the world ahead. However it also means that technology has to be updated and repaired and that training has to be always up-to-date. Furthermore, equipment challenges can be exacerbated by operators that don’t understand how to use their tools or don’t know how to troubleshoot problems in extremely high-stress situations.
Critical communication capabilities
It’s vital for departments to include technology updates, repairs and replacements in their budget, but it’s also important for regular training sessions to ensure that users can practice using the technology at their disposal while under realistic conditions.
The public safety sector encompasses a diverse group of professionals such as Homeland Security, law enforcement, emergency management, first responders, physical security specialists, IT security experts and firefighters. Furthermore, these agencies will always use disparate communications equipment simply because there are so many different options available to them.
So how do we fix this problem? Each agency needs to plan for interoperability. How do we do this? Agencies should be deploying mesh nodes in their vehicles and an LMR router to interface with their agencies’ push-to-talk radio of choice.
Interoperability is a fancy word for getting disparate systems to talk the same language. You do this using an LMR router to convert a push-to-talk radio’s signal to IP. Then the mesh node does the rest. Mesh networks form automatically and can act as the interoperability layer to easily allow one agency on a unique frequency to talk with other agencies using different radio types and frequencies.
You may be wondering why FIRSTNet cannot be this interoperability layer. Simply put, FIRSTNet is a cellular network subject to all the potential failings already described above. Mesh networks are self-forming and self-healing connecting V2X, which means they can communicate vehicle-to-vehicle and/or vehicle-to-infrastructure. A single failure somewhere doesn’t bring a large portion of the network down, as is the case with cellular based networks.
To be clear, I’m not anti-anything. FIRSTNet is a huge step forward for emergency responders in the US. My suggestion is we start to take the next step, which is planning for and ensuring interoperability before the next disaster strikes. Effective response in any scenario depends on real-time situational awareness and dependable communication.
To achieve this, access to a strong and secure network is necessary. Wireless mesh networks have been developed to provide continuous and reliable coverage throughout areas with dynamic conditions. Unlike traditional networks that rely on a limited number of access points or gateways, wireless mesh networks consist of a web of nodes spread throughout an area, each positioned within the range of others. These networks can vary in size, from a few nodes to hundreds.
It’s important to note that not all mesh networks are the same. You need to look for a network that does not require a master control node. Instead, look for a network with distributed routing capabilities. This will allow data to travel across the mesh, moving from node to node and won’t fail if access to a master control node is blocked. Top-tier mesh networks search for the most efficient path for connection and autonomously make adjustments if necessary.
For more than 25 years, Todd Rigby has been deploying communications systems and technology solutions across multiple industries. He has successfully helped numerous companies with various digitization and Industry 4.0 initiatives. He is the subject matter expert in the US for mining, heavy construction, agriculture, material processing, security, manufacturing and warehousing for Rajant Corporation. Todd has helped to develop Rajant’s Partner sales channel throughout the US, Canada, Central and South America, Australia and Africa. Before his employment at Rajant, Todd ran a prominent technology integrator and was Rajant’s first reseller Partner.
This article was originally published in the March edition of Security Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital edition, click here.