Category Archives: radio

Firstnet Finds a Fireball

Sue Swenson

Sue Swenson

On June 3rd, Sue Swenson assumed the role of Chair of the FirstNet Board of Directors.  She spoke to a group of about 500 people from public safety agencies, industry and the federal government at a conference near Boulder, Colorado, sponsored by Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR), an agency of the federal government’s Department of Commerce.  Her prepared remarks are here.

In Sue Swenson, FirstNet has found a fireball of a leader.

Her remarks are refreshing.   She admitted past Firstnet mistakes which have set back the effort.   She’s willing to admit her own, past, misgivings.  But she convincingly conveyed why she accepted the Chair’s role:  this work is something which will make a difference in the lives of every American.   And that same motivation drives the rest of us.

Sue has a sense of urgency, but not emergency.   I hate it when a tech employee comes to me and says “we have an emergency”.  As a former cop my response is always “oh yeah, whose life is in danger?”   Swenson feels the same way – unless someone has died, problems can be fixed.   She’s obviously a “can do” leader.

Sue is draconian on customer service.  When FirstNet makes a commitment they must keep that commitment.   If you can’t do it, don’t make the commitment.  “Don’t do that with me [drop commitments], or you will suffer.”

Sue’s remarks indicate a new era of transparency and openness is starting at FirstNet.  Here are some of the other indicators:

  • The FirstNet Board meeting yesterday was conducted in a room open to the public at a hotel.   No more full Board meetings behind closed doors, with only a handful of people in the room, televised with grainy video and hit-and-miss audio.   This is the way city councils and state legislatures and other public bodies meet – it is great to see the Board meeting that same standard.
  • FirstNet staff, to a person, are open and engaging – in person, on the phone, via email.  They ask questions, they ask for opinions, they answer questions honestly, understanding they only have a few of the answers.  Most of FirstNet’s future is unknown – it is yet to be written.  They, like Sue, are committed.
  • FirstNet has promised a public comment and input process on major parts of its work, like a comprehensive network request for proposals (RFP) for equipment and services.
  • The FirstNet website, while still rudimentary, contains hints of the new transparency.  Features such as a blog give timely news.  For example, FirstNet now has about 90 employees and contractors and we’re seeing announcements of some of those hires on the blog and website.  In fact, FirstNet says they will accept guest blog posts from outside – and I’ll be taking them up on that offer!
  • FirstNet encourages potential vendors to engage and meet with staff.   This is extraordinarily important as it keeps industry engaged, keeps FirstNet informed as the technology changes, and gives even small vendors – like local independent telephone companies and tech startups – a chance to be heard.  I’ve heard that, in the past, FirstNet staff listened politely to presentations but were forbidden to ask questions or engage.  So this is a welcome change.
  • FirstNet is highlighting best practices from states – work like a great poster developed by Oregon or a sharepoint site developed by Maryland.   This indicates a true intention to collaborate and work with states.

All is not sweetness and light, of course.   It is still frustrating to hear a lot of talk about the “program roadmap” but yet only have a two-page executive summary which describes it.   T. J. Kennedy, at the Board meeting, described some of the milestones – financial, personnel – which his team has met.   But most of the roadmap is a really a fog to those of us on the outside.

There is also the issue of sustainability. Swenson indicated “the strategy for FirstNet must be a sustainable plan, and that includes recapitalization of the network”.   This issue – a business plan to finance the construction and operation of the network – is of enormous interest to elected officials such as fire district commissioners and state legislators.   But no viable public business plan exists.  How will a nationwide network with only a few million users be able to stay current in technology and coverage and user demands as LTE wireless technology rapidly develops?  We hope and trust a business plan is under development.   Many of us in states could help with this if we see draft versions and perhaps run it through the proposed public comment process

Telecommunicators - Almost Invisible Responders

Telecommunicators – Almost Invisible Responders

I admire retiring chair Sam Ginn, and thank him for taking on the responsibility – something he didn’t have to do – to launch this whole enterprise and get the FirstNet ball rolling and keep it rolling up some pretty steep hills.   And I especially thank him for a phone call he made in mid-2012 to recruit Sue Swenson to the Board.

I look forward to the Swenson Era at FirstNet.   As she eloquently stated:  “[In the past] We didn’t make it clear whose network it is – it is public safety’s network and we have the privilege of working on it.”

I feel the same way – this network is owned by cops and firefighters and electrical lineworkers and building inspectors and EMT’s and telecommunicators who answer 911 calls every day.   Like Sue, I’m just privileged to work on it.

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Filed under 911, emergency operations, FirstNet, Law Enforcement, radio

- A Public-Private Radio Network?

Do they Really?Police and Fire radio networks.

They have to work.

All the time

During power outages, hurricanes, earthquakes.

When every other wireless network is dead.

So they have to be built, maintained and operated by government, right?

Or else they cannot be trusted, right?

That’s the way cities, counties, regions, states and local governments have ALWAYS built our radio networks for police, firefighters, emergency medical response, utilities, transportation, public works.

And with good reason.

Historically (by that, I mean “before cell phones”), most radio networks were really unreliable.  They were used to dispatch taxicabs and for citizens’ band radio (“CB”) by amateurs.   But no government would trust such a radio network to dispatch cops or firefighters. Such networks had dead spots, lots of static, and dropped off the air entirely when the electricity failed.

With the rise of commercial cell phone and, later, smart phone networks, such networks became … well … “really unreliable“.   Even today many people are angered and upset by dropped calls, “all circuits busy” and slow-loading (or “never loading”) pages.  And during any large event – a packed stadium for a baseball game, or a major traffic jam, a windstorm or an earthquake, you might as well use your phone as a camera, because you probably won’t get through to make a call.

When you’re being robbed at gunpoint or having a heart attack, do you really want the first responders coming to help YOU to depend on such networks?   That’s why, as I’ve blogged before, “cops don’t use cell phones“.

But building government-owned radio networks is REALLY expensive.  A public safety voice network requires just a handful of sites – say 8 radio sites for Seattle or maybe 30 for all of King County here in Washington State.  However, to rebuild those networks today, and to build the new high-speed data networks for responders’ smart phones, tablets and computers will take dozens – perhaps hundreds of sites to cover the same geography.  And THAT takes hundreds of millions of dollars.

Hello – we’re still in the midst of the Great Recession, right?   Government budgets are pinched left and right – sales tax, income tax, property tax revenues are all falling.   While the private sector is still hiring, many governments are laying off employees.   There are few dollars available for hundred million dollar networks.

Is there a middle way?   Is there some way governments could take advantage of the hundreds of existing cell phone sites developed for commercial networks?  Perhaps a way the commercial networks could take advantage of fiber optic networks and buildings or radio sites owned by government?   And some way we could make the cell phone networks more secure, more resistant to terrorism and natural disasters, and therefore more reliable for public safety use?

Here in Seattle, we think so.

We think we might be able to start with all the assets which taxpayers have already bought and paid for – the fiber and microwave networks, radio sites, backup generators, skilled technology employees, and our existing investments in radios and computers.  Then we would add equipment and cell sites and other assets, along with expertise and innovative ideas from private sector companies – telecommunications carriers, equipment manufacturers and apps developers.  Mashing these together, we might get a private-public partnership which gives consumers and businesses more reliable, faster mobile networks, while giving responders new, state-of-the-art networks at a fraction of the cost of building them from scratch, like we’ve always done before.

That’s the idea behind a request for information (RFI) issued by the City of Seattle several weeks ago  seeking ideas about private-public partnerships for next generation networks.  We need some great pioneering “outside the box” ideas in response to the RFI.

And then, perhaps, we can build a modern, smart, network in the Central Puget Sound which saves everyone money, and works reliably during disasters small (“heart attack”) and large (“earthquake”).

P. S.  All these ideas are not mine.  In fact, to some extent I’ve been hauled kicking and screaming (or maybe shuffling and whimpering) to look for a middle way.   Let’s give credit to Deputy King County Executive Fred Jarrett, United States Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, elected officials like State Representative Reuven Carlyle and Mr. Stan Wu of the City of Seattle for “coloring outside the lines without falling off the page”.

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Filed under government operations, radio, wireless

- Why don’t Cops Use Smart Phones?

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Responders’ Smart Phones – Click to see more

Every teenager – including some of us 50 and 60 year old teenagers – seems to have a smart phone these days.  I’m writing this on an airplane, and I just finished an intense, 20 minute “Angry Birds” session on my HTC Android smart phone (yes, it was in “airplane” mode!).   And I’m almost a Luddite when it comes to apps and smart phones.

But many people young and old commonly use their smart phones or tablet computers to do interesting, productive activities such as:

  • listen to public safety two-way radio;
  • take meeting notes using Evernote or One Note;
  • watch episodes of TV series using Hulu;
  • read books and newspapers;
  • take photos or videos and text message them around the world.

Gee, some people even use their smart phones to actually make voice telephone calls!?

So why don’t cops and firefighters, emergency medical technicians and electrical lineworkers, public works and transportation department employees, and a whole other host of critical and important government workers use smart phones in their daily jobs?

Of course these public safety workers DO use smart phones. Often they use their PERSONAL smart phones to do some part of their job. But rarely do governments give their workers smart phones – other than BlackBerrys for email, that is – to officially do their jobs and become much more productive.  In fairness, that’s not because Mayors and County Executives and Governors are unsupportive, or government CFOs are enny-pinching.

We don’t give government workers these important tools for two basic reasons:

  • The apps don’t exist;
  • There is no guarantee of priority access to commercial cell phone networks.

In terms of the “apps”, most governments use a relatively small set of applications from a few vendors – there are records management systems, computer-aided dispatch systems, utility billing systems, work management systems, etc.  And many of the vendors of those systems only recently have built them to accept even web-browser access. The terms and conditions for our (government’s) use of such software explicitly says we’ll only use the software with vendor approved configurations, or the vendor won’t give us support.  And most vendors for these government-specific systems don’t make a version of their application which runs on a smart phone, whether it is a Windows Phone 7, Apple iPad or Iphone, or  Google Android.

Software companies:  Get on the stick and write smart phone apps for your software. ‘nuf said.

More importantly, government workers presently have to use commercial mobile networks for their smart phones. And on those networks, public safety and critical infrastructure workers have no priority. That means your teenager (even if she’s 50 years old) has the same priority as a cop or firefighter or electrical lineworker responding to a major incident or emergency.

Do you want that emergency medical technician responding to YOUR heart attack to have priority access – wirelessly and in real time – to your medical history, and to the emergency room doctors at the level 1 trauma center, and to a video conference with your cardiologist?  Of course you  do!

During a robbery, when you or your employees are being held up at gunpoint, don’t you want the responding cops to be able to see the video of  your store – including the images of the perpetrators, in real time as they respond?  And have passers-by snapping photos and video of the perps to send to 911 centers using next generation 911 technologies?  Of course you do!

When your electrical power is out, or your water is interrupted, don’t you want that utility worker to have access to all the diagrams and network configurations so they can accurately pinpoint where the outage is and rapidly fix it?  Well, of course you do.

If, all of a sudden, a kid in your child’s high school goes crazy and brings a gun to that school, taking teachers and students hostage, don’t you want responding cops and firefighters to have access to the video cameras with interior views of the school, and to the school’s building plan showing all the exits, and maybe even to the GPS on the cell phone used by the kid with the gun so they can see his (they are all boys, alas) exact position in the school? Obviously we do.

But the blunt fact of the matter is this:  At the same time you are having a heart attack, or your business is being robbed, or your electricity fails, or a school lockdown occurs – everyone who has a cell phone within a mile of the incident may be texting and calling and tweeting and sending photographs to their loved ones, and the commercial cellular networks will be overloaded.

That’s why we don’t give cops and firefighters smart phones.  Because – besides the fact that safe, secure, apps don’t exist – when responders most need their smart phones, the cell phone networks will be overloaded and fail them.

Is there a way out of this dilemma?  “Of course there is!”

Several bills are pending in Congress today which would allocate wireless spectrum for priority use by police, firefighters, emergency medical techs – and also by electrical lineworkers, public works employees and transportation workers .  Those same bills would auction other spectrum for use by carriers, producing almost $26 billion in revenue to both reduce the federal government deficit and to build a nationwide public safety network which responders could use – with priority over all other users and uses.

Then those first and second responders could use smart phone applications every day, confident that the network will be available, no matter what nearby teenagers are doing.

But, like so much else in this year of 2011, Congress is in deadlock. Some brave Senators and Representatives such as Jay Rockefeller
and Kay Bailey Hutchison (with Senate Bill S.911) and Peter King and Maria Cantwell and Dave Reichert do step up to the plate, led by Vice President Joe Biden.  They all support creation of a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network.   At the same time, many others in Congress stall and block the work, while people needlessly are hurt or die.

Why don’t cops and firefighters use smart phones?  Because some in Congress would rather play politics, argue endlessly, and pinch funding than give our responders the tools they need to save lives and protect property every day, as well as during future disasters.

With the 10th anniversary of the September 11th World Trade Center disaster just a month away, does this dithering make sense?   Of course it doesn’t.

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Filed under 911, APCO, homecity security, radio, Sept. 11th

- Higher Tech Policing

Dubuque Police Department
Dubuque Police Department

Updated:  18 June 2011
Original Post:  2 August 2009

A long time ago in a city far far away I was a street cop. A police officer working the beat. It wasn’t a large city – Dubuque, Iowa – 65,000 people and probably 60 or 70 policemen. Yes “policeMEN”. The first women were hired into the Dubuque PD while I was there, and I – at 5′ 9″ and 170 pounds – was one of the smallest cops on the force.

In those days, technology was not really part of an officer’s life. Times have changed, they REALLY have changed. The Seattle Police Department has just implemented a new Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system which is fundamentally altering policing at the City of Seattle – the “SPIDER” project. Technology is now – literally – at the right and left hand of virtually every cop – and firefighter and emergency medical tech.

When I was on the street, my primary technology was the radio in my police cruiser. The voice radio was (and still is) the lifeline for public safety officers on the street. But, in the 1970s, when I walked out of the car, I also walked away from that lifeline. We didn’t have handheld or portable radios, nor did cell phones exist. If there was a problem when we were away from the car, we depended upon each other to “drive by” and check on us (and cops still do that), or on a citizen to use a land-line telephone to notify dispatch. That was scary.

Now police officers carry a handheld radio, and a lapel mike, and every Seattle radio has an emergency button which, when pressed, alerts dispatch center that the officer is in trouble. The emergency alert triggers a display of badge number on the dispatch console. The radios can communicate with officers throughout the region. And automatic vehicle location (AVL) shows the location of every police and fire apparatus in the City. All of this tech doesn’t mean policing is easier or safer than it was in the 1970s – on the contrary, there are new issues and dangers, which I’ll mention a little later.

We did reports by hand, on paper. We filled out index cards for car stops. And every call to police/fire emergency was logged on a card with a timestamp. When we wanted to get information about a license plate or driver’s license, the dispatcher looked up the info in a set of file cards or – this was really high tech in the 1970s – typed the request into a teletype machine for someone in some far city (like Des Moines) to look up on their index cards.

Now, things are much more high tech. First, people call 911 for emergencies. 911 is virtually ubiquitous in the United States, but barely existed in the 1970s. The police call-taker immediately sees the ANI/ALI (automatic number identification / automatic location identification) associated with your number. The call taker immediately enters all the information about the call into the Seattle Police Department’s new CAD (software written by Versaterm). [Fires or emergency medical calls are "hot transferred" from a police call-taker to a fire dispatcher, who enters the information into a Seattle Fire CAD, and you can actually view some real-time information about Fire 911 calls online here].

Dispatchers then dispatch the 911 call to an available police unit. An electronic map shows the location of every 911 call which is in-progress or waiting, the locations of police units and their status (free, working a call, etc.). A double click on a map icon brings up information about the call or the unit. Records management (also by Versaterm) is similarly automated, with reports now written electronically on laptop or in-vehicle computers directly by officers. A wide variety of information (e.g. address) is automatically verified, and the report is uploaded wirelessly.

The state-of-the-art in Seattle Police is even more high tech. Every patrol car has a digital video camera; every car stop is recorded, including the audio of the conversation from a wireless mic carried by the officer. Special license-plate-recognition vehicles (wirelessly connected to national databases) cruise the streets looking for parking scofflaws and stolen cars. Officers with BlackBerrys or their in-car vehicles can easily search for online information – a far cry from that teletype machine.

We are actively working on even higher speed wireless networking in the 700 MHz spectrum, which should allow two-way high-quality video transmissions to/from field units, including video from private security cameras in banks and stores. Fire units already carry electronic versions certain sorts of building plans, but in the future those building plans could be quickly updated to show the locations of hazardous materials or the detailed configuration of a school.

I’m certain high-tech has increased public safety through more rapid sharing of information, and has improved communications and therefore officer safety. This comes at a price, of course, and not just in dollars.   I’m not quite sure how dispatchers and police officers and firefighters stay current with the skills required to dispatch, provide policing, fight fires and provide emergency medical, AND also learn all this technology.  It is a challenge!

And officers today face dangers on the street which I never dreamed of in the 1970s – significant drug use, gangs, potential terrorists, and criminals who specialize themselves in using technology for identity theft, stalking, and crimes against children. I’m glad my experience as a police officer is behind me – I’m not smart enough or quick enough on my feet to face the challenges of the street today. But I hope – by continued wise application of technology – we can make cops, firefighters and the people they serve a bit safer.

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Filed under 911, Iowa, radio, Seattle Police

- Shocked, SHOCKED to learn …

Shocked over the FCC Chairman?

Shocked over the FCC Chairman?

I am schocked, SHOCKED to learn that an senior official of the Bush Administration would abuse his power, withhold information from the public and members of his agency, and attempt to manipulate data and information to advance his personal agenda, perhaps directing excess payments of up to $100 million to private companies.

Or, to continue the parallels with the 1942 movie classic Casablanca, “play it again, W”. (Yeah, I know the line “play it again Sam” was never in the movie!)

I’m not referring to the bungled management of Iraq in 2003-4 or the vast sums of money funneled in no-bid contracts to companies like Halliburton. I’m referring to the majority staff report of the United States House Committee on Energy and Commerce, released this week, and its primary subject, the management of the Federal Communications Commission by Chair Kevin Martin.

My comment: DUH. The report is NOT news to those of us in local government who’ve had to deal with the FCC Chairman and the outfall of a few of his decisions over the past eight years.

Exhibit 1: Congress authorized the removal of UHF television channels 52 through 69, freeing 108 megahertz of spectrum in the 700 megahertz (MHz) band for other uses. This spectrum was really valuable because it has good penetration of walls and into buildings. The FCC auctioned most of this spectrum to wireless telecommunications companies with the money going into the federal treasury.

About 10 megahertz was reserved for public safety use: police, fire, and emergency medical services. Traditionally, cities and counties and regions have licensed and used spectrum allocated to them to build radio systems for public safety and general government. Spectrum allocated only for voice radio systems, that is. We expected the same kinds of licensing rules to apply to this valuable new chunk of spectrum, which could be used for “broadband” – essentially wireless Internet. Such spectrum could send building maps to firefighters, video from crime scenes, patient telemetry from medic units.

Under Martin, however, even that small piece of the 700 MHz spectrum was ripped from the hands of local government and was to be auctioned into the control of private companies. Only in the last few weeks – since the November 4th election and impending changes at the FCC – has this plan been derailed.

Exhibit 2: Martin demonstrated an active prejudice on behalf of telecommunications carriers by altering the rules for cable franchising. Under the Constitution, states, cities and counties control their streets and rights-of-way. Under the Telecomm Act of 1996, cities and counties franchise the companies who string cables on poles in those rights of way and then offer cable television and related services to consumers. The franchises funnel revenues and services (e.g. Internet access and cable TV at community centers) to the local governments.

But the FCC, under Martin, changed the rules – cities and counties are now forced to grant cable franchises within 90 days, but ONLY to telecommunications carriers who already operate within the jurisdiction. Anyone else wanting a cable franchise goes through the traditional process!

Under Kevin Martin, the FCC’s mantra apparently was “no telecommunications carrier left behind”. And cities and counties lost the ability to manage their own rights-of-way and airwaves on behalf of the public safety and welfare.

Certainly the FCC has done a lot of good work regulating the airwaves, telecommunications and cable, and there are a lot of talented FCC staff who are dedicated to serving the public.

They deserve a Chair of the Commission with similar values and ethical leadership.

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Filed under cable, Fedgov, radio, wireless

- Talk Groups will keep You Safe

Public Safety Radio - Click for more info

Public Safety Radio - click for more

The Truth may make you Free, but it is the Talk Groups which keep you Safe.

What the hell is a “talk group”?
Well, it is not the senior citizens who gather at the corner café or feedstore (are my Iowa roots showing?) to discuss the issues of the day? Nope – talk groups are the fundamental element of a public safety voice radio system.
Seattle has five police precincts.  One of them – West – got really busy at about 2:00 PM today.  A bank robbery occurred at the Bank of America branch in the center of downtown. And the West Precinct “talk group” was filled the voices of dozens of police officers and FBI responding, surrounding the building and searching for the suspect, which they’d caught by 2:30.  (Coincidently, at 2:09 PM, an automobile rescue was dispatched to 7700 16th Ave SW, with eight fire units plus police units dispatched – get more details on the City’s website here).

When police and fire departments first started using radio for dispatch and operations in the 1920s, one radio “frequency” was allocated for each precinct or task, such as the West Police Precinct, or a large-scale medic incident such as the auto rescue.  We all know what a radio frequency is – “tune to KJR 950 on your radio dial” – 950 kilohertz that is, although most folks don’t know the “kilohertz” part (and the geeks reading this can get a better explanation in Wikipedia)  .
Public safety departments were assigned similar frequencies.
Using radio for dispatching and operations is really really useful.  So everyone  tarted using it!   Buses and water utilities and taxis and just about any other operation with a mobile workforce.  And, with the advent of cell phones and then wireless data communications such as those offered by the cell phone companies, or wi-fi, the available frequencies rapidly were allocated.  In dense urban areas like Seattle, virtually every kilohertz of radio spectrum is allocated to something, or reserved by FCC for a future use.
In fact, the transition to digital TV which is occurring on February 19, 2009 (see the explanation here) is all about freeing more frequencies for other uses. The FCC has also taken TV stations 70 to 83 (UHF) off the air to free frequencies.

In Seattle, however, we only have about 28 radio frequencies for all City government uses. Yet we have hundreds of police and firefighters and utility workers and others on the street at any given time.  Plus public safety officers from many other jurisdictions come to Seattle to transport prisoners or attend court.  How can we stretch 28 frequencies to cover all those uses?
The answer: “talk groups”. Plus a bit of technology.

Motorola developed a technology called “trunked radio”.  Essentially no radio frequency is ever used every second of the time.  Even during the bank robbery downtown this afternoon, with dozens of officers listening and talking, there were long gaps between transmissions.  Part of this is good training and “radio discipline” by the cops.  Motorola’s system allows each transmission to use any available frequency, not just one.  In this fashion, dozens or hundreds of “talk groups” (like West Police Precinct) can use the same 28 frequencies, all at the same time, without interference and with plenty of spare capacity. Indeed, during most days, there are over 60,000 individual radio transmissions on the Seattle network, but rarely are more than half the 28 available frequencies in use.

The interesting part: this is 1980s technology!  It is 20 years old!  Indeed, these radio systems are based, in part, on the Motorola 6809 chip, developed 30 years ago in 1978, and also used in wonderful machines like the Tandy “Color Computer”.

Are these systems getting old?  You bet, and they’ll need replacing soon.  But for right now, Seattle’s Public Safety Radio system is up and working 99.999% of the time (that is only minutes of downtime a year), a credit not just to solid technology but good maintenance and fast response to problems by the City’s Comm Shop (part of my Department of Information Techology).

This technology – and talk groups like “West Precinct” – help police officers and firefighters keep Seattle safe.

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Filed under radio, Seattle DoIT, Seattle Fire Dept, Seattle Police