Broader Spectrum Ahead for Security and First Responders

On Feb. 22, President Obama signed the “Middle Class Tax Relief” legislation. While the tax implication of that bill was the big story, also included in the bill was legislation that finally provided nationwide spectrum for use by first responders. The events of 9/11 brought to the forefront the challenges our first responders have with electronic communications. The lack of interoperability between the communications methods deployed by first responders meant firefighters were not aware that police officers received orders to evacuate. Tragically, many firefighters lost their lives because the communications technology they were provided failed them. 

The 9/11 commission recognized this failure and thus recommended legislation be passed that would provide increased spectrum allocation for public safety use. Finding and then allocating spectrum for public safety use has not been easy. As we become an ever-increasing wireless world, our thirst for spectrum has become insatiable.

Timing is everything. The transition from analog to digital television opened up considerable spectrum, which the FCC divided into five blocks, called A, B, C, D and E blocks. The government raised considerable funds in auctioning off most of that spectrum. However, use of D-block required the winning bidder to establish public-private partnership with the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST.) That requirement led to lower bids that did not meet the $1.3 billion reserve price. Consequently, through the tireless efforts of the PSST, led by Chief Harlin McEwen, the need to assign the D-Block exclusively for use by public safety gained momentum. The ultimate assignment of D-Block for public safety was finally realized when the president signed the bill in February.

While the spectrum allocation was a huge step, it is only the beginning. The legislation established the “First Responder Network Authority” (FRNA) referred to as FirstNet. FirstNet will be part of the National Technology Information Administration. Also established was the Public Safety Trust Fund, within the Treasury Department, which was seeded with a $7 billion allocation for construction of the network. There is a high probability that the network deployed for public safety will use Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology. As we all know from our own use of smart mobile devices, higher wireless data rates provided by LTE open up a plethora of applications.

The applications that are enabled for use by first responders are why this is important to the fire and security industry, for manufacturers as well as integrators. The interoperability promise of this network goes well beyond enabling first responder departments to share data with each other. Mobile applications that provide first responders with real-time situational awareness will become the norm and will have a tremendous impact on public as well as first responder safety.

Eventually, it is not unreasonable to expect fire alarm systems, video management systems, building management systems, card access systems, etc., to have secure interfaces to applications deployed by first responders. Information from a building, delivered direct to a fire officer as the engine is rolling to an event will help prepare him for what he will encounter once on scene. That could be information about what additional fire sensors have activated and where those sensors are located, allow the fire officer to view cameras in the building or know if the air handlers have shut down or are evacuating smoke. That only scratches the surface of what will eventually be possible to enhance overall safety.

Accomplishing this will require that FirstNet and NIST drive the creation of standards that allow such interoperability. These standards must be such an enabler, while protecting the intellectual property rights of manufacturers that drive innovation. As chairman of the Security Industry Association I look forward to SIA representing fire and security manufacturers in this worthwhile effort.

Jay Hauhn, Chief Technology Officer and Vice President of Industry Relations at Tyco Integrated Security, has more than 30 years’ industry experience and is a member of SSI’s Hall of Fame.

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