Profound challenges often spur great progress. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. Not only is the public safety community staring an enormous challenge in the face, but also is looking at a tremendous opportunity to move the community forward.
Traditionally, public safety has been slow to adopt new technologies and embrace new strategies. However, the pandemic has forced agencies to do things they likely would not have contemplated before. The collection of new concepts not only will enable public safety to handle the pandemics and mega-disasters of the future, but also will enhance day-to-day operations personnel performance. Public safety is up to the challenge, as long as officials can get comfortable with being uncomfortable for a while.In just one of many examples, the pandemic resulted in a Virginia public safety agency moving beyond its brick-and-mortar facilities (at least in part) and, in this case, leveraging Internet Protocol (IP) network infrastructure to enable telecommunicators to work from home due to shelter-in-place orders.
Such a scenario would have been dismissed out of hand just a few months ago. Many reasons would have been cited: insufficient control, data is too sensitive, the ability to lead will suffer, as would cohesion, order and discipline. But none of this matters if an entire emergency communications center is incapable of operating because the staff has been quarantined or taken ill as a result of a pandemic. What public safety has learned through this experience is the veracity of the adage that says necessity is the mother of invention.
If billion-dollar private industries can find ways to employ a global workforce and provide them with tools and technologies that enable them to achieve great success consistently in remote environments, then what prevents the public safety from doing the same? The answer is an inability to abandon the ways of the past and to be forward-thinking. This can be overcome if public safety wants to do so. It is not terribly difficult to deploy infrastructure to enable staff members to work remotely. Staff members can be trained to work in a remote environment. Access to sensitive data can be securely controlled. Here’s another adage that rings true: where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Let’s examine some of the technological factors that will shape the way in which public safety agencies provide emergency response services in the future.
Technology—Given the processing power of laptops, the availability and reliability of cloud-based applications, e.g., software as a service (SaaS), and, in some areas the regional sharing of services—such as call-handling and computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems—the ability of telecommunicators to process emergency calls for service and dispatch emergency response in a remote environment no longer is an issue. Further, interactive voice response (IVR), voice over IP (VoIP) and private branch exchange (PBX) phone systems are capable of seamless call-forwarding to remote users and/or shifting to cloud-based implementations with virtually no impact on voice and data quality,
Certainly, the internet capabilities that telecommunicators can leverage at home likely will be inferior to what they can leverage in their workplace, and will vary from region to region and will depend on whether the location is urban or rural. But the majority of areas within the United States have network speeds greater than 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps), which is sufficient to process eight calls simultaneously in a Next Generation 911 (NG911) environment. If greater bandwidth is needed, it can be negotiated in advance with the service provider. (This will be explored in greater detail in an ensuing post, which will touch upon continuity-of-operations and disaster-recovery plans.)
Regarding network and cybersecurity, this can be addressed effectively via the use of virtual private networks (VPNs), service level agreements (SLAs), implementation of security protocols and elements, e.g., firewalls and multifactor authentication, and thorough staff member training.
I think we can all recognize that internet service to the home or non-business accounts are less reliable to a degree, don’t have stringent SLAs, but let’s be honest our 99.999% networks have segments fail and sunny day outages occur several times a year even at our hardened ECCs, so we have to recognize that remote operations will have to reliability trade-offs to ensure that we can continue to provide some level of service to our communities; which is better than no service at all. But what about the security aspect? VPN, training and protocols, active cyber monitoring protocols all of these can be done to protect your system and the data that your telecommunicators are accessing through the course of their duties. That information is no more or less protected following protocols and putting tools in place that it is in the four cinder-block walls of your PSAP, it boils down to trust, training, and planning.
One of the key takeaways from the pandemic is that telecommunicators can perform very well in remote environments. No longer do resources need to be brought in from outside the impacted area to backfill ECCs that have been impacted by disaster. Technology is available that enables telecommunicators from thousands of miles away to answer emergency calls and dispatch response.
Perhaps the most significant barrier from a technology perspective concerns interoperability. But this is fast-changing as well. Many regions are sharing systems and services as a way to reduce costs and to enhance resiliency and redundancy. Agencies that share radio, call-handling and CAD systems are able to shift operations quickly and seamlessly. In addition, as more agencies join the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) nationwide public safety broadband network, and as that network becomes ubiquitous, radio interoperability issues will evaporate.
A future post will examine the operational, governance and funding factors that will need to be considered to evolve public safety communications going forward.