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Software-Defined Radio in Emergency Response Communication

Author: Stephanie Chiao

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2015-11-25
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Software-Defined Radio is a wireless communication device where the transmitter and receiver operations are changed or modified by software alone without making any (physical) changes to the hardware. The functions of the radio can be completely (re)configured with the software, eliminating the need to make any changes to the hardware.

In disaster situations, people may not be able to be heard or seen but any wireless signal can be detected. In addition, the ability for reconfigure software-defined radio devices can make communications adaptable and interoperable quickly and simply. Photo courtesy

Over the past three decades, Software-Defined Radio (SDR) has evolved significantly to play a crucial role in wireless communication. In the early days adaptation was difficult as the equipment was considerably expensive. But over the past few years this technology has become increasingly cost-effective making it an ideal communications tool for emergency services. 

What makes SDR an ideal technology for crisis response and public safety is the fact that this device is significantly flexible and interoperable when compared to other radio devices. SDR makes basic operations such as encoding/decoding and modulation/demodulation dependent on the software side, as opposed to traditional wireless devices that require different hardware based on the use case.

As the user modifies the functions through software, the same piece of hardware can have multiple applications making it highly adaptable while completely (re)configuring the functions (both protocols and firmware layers) of the radio. As a result, tasks such as changes in frequency, modulation schemes, and migration become very easy to accomplish. 


Software-Defined Radio Defined

Software-Defined Radio is basically a wireless communication device where the transmitter and receiver operations are changed or modified by software alone without making any (physical) changes to the hardware. So the functions of the radio can be completely (re)configured with the software, eliminating the need to make any changes to the hardware which can be expensive and time-consuming.  

SDRs offer a single platform negating the need to have multiple platforms and multiple radio devices (SIGINT, ew, comms, all in one platform). Currently, the SDR devices that are available in the market are both light and small which makes it highly portable. As the world community has become increasingly connected and inter-dependent, it no longer makes sense for emergency services to be operating multiple devices at the same time to communicate and coordinate responses. 

"SDR et WF" by SDR_et_WF.JPG: Topituukderivative work: McSush (talk) - SDR_et_WF.JPG. Licensed under Copyrighted free use via Wikipedia Commons 

Current State Emergency Response Communication

Emergency response services have yet to optimize their communication solution. More often than not, emergency response units have to go through central command to relay information to the central command of other units who then communicate the information to the first responders on the ground. This makes seamless communication much more complicated as the information has to travel through many intermediaries before it reaches the final destination.  

This process opens the door to errors such as vital information being missed, delays occurring during an emergency situation due to the lack of communication or time it takes to be conveyed, and lost opportunities to resolve the situation. One of the main reasons for this is the use of standard two-way RF radios by emergency response teams. Presently, various departments including fire and police have their own communications devices that are incompatible with those or other departments or response groups.

SDR, on the other hand, has the potential to revolutionize emergency response communication as not only is it highly interoperable and adaptable, it can also be used in conjunction with geospatial technologies. By incorporating this system into public safety and emergency response, various units and departments can easily collaborate, communicate, perform a risk analysis and respond better during a disaster.   


How does SDR Fit into Emergency Response Communication?

SDRs available in the market today are application agnostic platforms that enable powerful geolocation, communication, and other public safety capabilities. This enhances the way emergency response personnel operate as they will have access to highly advanced geolocation functionality to passively locate transmission sources. For example, in a case of a fire, firefighters can access the geolocation of the emergency, get imagery data on the location, and respond to the emergency knowing all the vital information. 

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As a result, software-defined radios become a leading solution for the emergency response and management market as it is a dynamically scalable network system that is highly adaptable and interoperable using existing mobile and web technology in conjunction with wireless grids. What makes it even more attractive to this field is the fact that SDR technology is a highly cost-effective solution as the hardware does not have to be modified or replaced when making the necessary changes to meet the needs of emergency services.


Optimized Solution for Emergency Response Communication  

The public safety apparatus has realized the importance of optimizing their communication solutions, but it’s still quite far from where it needs to be. We are now starting to see more cooperation between different units, joint drills, and overall sharing of information, but it can still be significantly improved. 

Emergency response services have been pushing towards a national broadband public safety network in the United States, but that solution will take time and will be costly. For now, what various agencies can do is incorporate available SDR technology to ensure that there is reliable, effective, and seamless communication during a crisis.

It is understood that being able to communicate with other first responders is ideal, however, there are issues pertaining to the cost of replacing existing hardware and the inherent training costs that would be associated with such a change. With a powerful SDR, such as Per Vice's Crimson Software Defined Radio, first responders would be able to use the SDR as a communications repeater effectively bridging the communications between first responders without the need for changing their existing radio hardware. This would be accomplished by setting the SDR to receive on the frequency of interest and setting the SDR to transmit the information received on the frequency of the radios used; for example, receive communications from police bands and retransmit over the frequencies used by firefighters.

The incorporation of SDR will also enable responding personnel to build structures for ad-hoc situation based response where there is a significant need for remotely sensed data capture and communication. As SDR communications devices are highly interoperable, they can essentially bridge the gap between the various devices that are involved, transparently. As a result, when it becomes crucial to communicate important information and engage in coordinated rescue efforts, SDR becomes the optimized solution. 



Stephanie Chiao is the Product Marketing Manager at Per Vices Corporation, a leading suppier of Software Defined Radio (SDR).  Per Vices’ Crimson Arria V SoC-based SDR COTS board is a flexible product with a wide range of applications well suited for governmental. military and wireless networking applications.  Chiao is responsible for marketing strategy, technical promotion, and media relations. For more information on Per Vices, see



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