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Smartphone Communications for Public Safety

Author: David Simon, Product Manager, Data Products, Harris

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,

Date: 2014-10-03
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Over the past several years, a high number of new mobile applications have been introduced for first responders and other public safety personnel. These applications have become popular because they provide users with an alternate way of communicating with one another using their commercial grade connected devices, such as smartphones and tablets. While these applications are designed to ultimately provide additional information as well as more timely information to those who serve and protect the citizens in their communities, it can be overwhelming for agencies to decide which ones to adopt, especially with new offerings and updated versions emerging on a near-constant basis from a host of companies. There are some important factors that officials should consider when deciding which applications and application platforms to implement.


Meeting Public Safety’s Unique Demands

Over the years, Land Mobile Radios (LMR) and Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) Systems have been designed and adapted to meet the unique needs of public safety users. While these systems will remain as critical tools for public safety personnel, it is important that agencies select the applications that deploy to seamlessly integrate with existing LMR and CAD systems. Islands of information created by separate or poorly integrated tools can create a lack of coordination, inefficiency and actually lower effectiveness. 

Let’s consider smartphone push-to-talk (PTT) applications as an example. There are a host of applications that allow users to have access to PTT voice, presence and situational awareness capabilities via smartphones. These are offered as hosted solutions for download from the various app stores, commercial cellular carrier offered solutions and as procured self-hosted and administered solutions. Using this PTT service on a commercial network has the potential to greatly increase the coverage footprint of an agency’s LMR-based network and to better serve certain types of users.   However, there is a broad spectrum of how well these PTT apps are integrated with existing LMR communication systems. It is critical to consider factors such as whether or not the app’s server side is a resident component of the LMR switch or whether it must be hosted on a separate system and connected via gateway. What audio quality, PTT speed and what features are sacrificed if a gateway is to be used, and is that acceptable?  Additionally, does the smartphone app use a cell phone’s resident vocoder or does it use the P25 standard vocoder? If the radio system is P25 based, using a smartphone’s resident vocoder requires transcoding, which reduces performance and audio quality creating a significant sacrifice.

Ask questions to determine how well the app was designed to work with existing systems that you rely on versus being a standalone capability. For example, in the case of a PTT app, how and where are the app users administered? Are they administered in the same interface as a radio user, or must the administrator maintain multiple databases? How secure is the app design? Does it introduce penetration exposure or cloning exposure, putting the LMR system at risk? Are you sharing a server with other users, which is likely to be the case of any hosted service-oriented solution? Does the PTT app offer end-to-end encryption or are there unencrypt and re-encrypt points? Is the encryption P25 compliant? Can the encryption keys be provisioned over the air in a manner identical to the radio users? Generally, how closely does the app’s feature set and user interface line up with the radio system to which it is connected? 

Consider the different use cases for the various user types that plan to use the app. For example, if the target use is PTT communications for an undercover officer, there needs to be a mechanism for users to be able to listen to communications as well as push-to-talk without any indication whatsoever that they are doing so. Is it possible to push-to-talk without having to touch the smartphone? Can commercial off-the-shelf earbuds be used to listen and talk with the app? Is Bluetooth supported? Taking the time to understand these factors and the application’s strengths and weaknesses can significantly impact the effectiveness of an agency’s response and coordination, so careful upfront investigation of the apps you deploy pays significant dividends down the road. In public safety situations, every second counts.   

Another feature to consider is having an application that is data network agnostic. That is to say, is the application capable of supporting users on multiple commercial cellular data networks and other networks? Does the app seamlessly switch between networks without user intervention? When a user is in the office, they expect to be connected to Wi-Fi. However, when they leave their desk and are outside the office, the application should automatically switch to a commercial carrier network while remaining secure and without user intervention.

In addition to all the current features of the application, first responders should be looking at the big picture and thinking about the platforms on which these applications can operate and work together to improve communications among users. It’s not just about choosing the right application; it’s about selecting the best ecosystem for the agency’s specific needs. Consider the importance of the app. providing an open API that can be leveraged by other third parties to feed data into or out of the application. A few examples might be the ability to push and pull smartphone device and LMR location in and out of the app, or the ability to display data collected in another system on the maps in the app, such as CAD data, social network feeds, facial recognition triggers, firearm status, or video streams.


Looking Forward

In the coming years, mobile applications and application platforms will serve as powerful tools for public safety users. They provide the ability to easily communicate and seamlessly share critical information in a timely fashion. While new technology enhancements are introduced to the public safety industry, agencies should work to identify a balance that meets their individual needs. Just as important, they must be able to confidently integrate properly outfitted consumer-grade devices when necessary so as to quickly and effectively augment their legacy public safety grade technology.


David Simon is the Product Line Manager for BeOn and Applications Products for Harris Public Safety and Professional Communications (PSPC). With an engineering, technical sales, and marketing career spanning 25 years, Simon has held senior positions with a focus on cellular technologies and public safety solutions at Catalyst Communications, Intrepient Technologies, Criterion Wireless Corp., and others before joining Harris in 2011. 


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