Public-Safety Agencies Use Converged Networks to Do More with Less

The renewed focus on homeland security is forcing many departments to find creative ways to meet the security needs of their communities.
By Ian Miller

Article Summary
Providing safety and security to the public can be an expensive proposition. Public agencies are increasingly security conscious, but they must also face the economic reality of budget constraints. Many municipalities and agencies are turning to technology solutions that allow them to improve the level of security they provide without drastically increasing costs—or in some cases, while actually reducing costs.

Public-safety agencies face unique challenges. Like most government agencies, their budgets are being cut; the continuing economic downturn and the corresponding reduction in tax revenue means that the operating budgets of most agencies have shrunk dramatically. But unlike other government agencies, public-safety agencies are actually being asked to increase their capabilities and provide more services with fewer resources. To bridge the gap between lower operating budgets and higher demand for their services, forward-thinking police departments, fire departments, and other emergency-response agencies are turning to converged Internet Protocol (IP) networks and other networking technologies to increase security while cutting costs.

Security Needs Encourage the Adoption of Standards-Based Networking
Timely access to information is critical in providing public-safety services; hence, networking has always factored prominently in the security and public-safety sectors. Connecting command and control centers to the people in the field has been a primary goal of public-safety networking since the advent of the first one-way police radios in the 1920s. Facilitating the intelligence between field agents and data centers improves communications and response. And it's the network that makes this possible.

In the past, public-safety agencies were often at the forefront of communications technologies. But frequently there were limited ready-to-use commercial networking solutions available for their needs, so agencies were often forced to build—or contract out—their own communications networks from start to finish. While these networks have provided some distinct advantages, proprietary, custom-built networks have many intrinsic shortcomings:

  • Proprietary solutions are neither interoperable nor scaleable.
  • These networks are low speed and low bandwidth, allowing only voice- and text-based applications.
  • These networks allow only sequential and solo-user behavior and workflow
  • Data gathering and analysis is disjointed and disparate.
  • These networks lack a global positioning system (GPS) or other location information.
  • Radio networks that are dependent on Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) are phasing out due to limited future support.

But new business realities and the advent of new technologies—particularly converged IP networking—have finally compelled commercial communications companies to develop standards-based networking solutions. These standards-based, converged network IP solutions offer the following advantages:

  • Secure, high-bandwidth networks that support rich voice, video, and integrated data IP applications
  • Interagency collaboration and parallel work flow
  • Real-time information integration, synthesis, and dissemination
  • GPS or other location information to identify agents in the field
  • Vendor and technology flexibility
  • Future-proof architecture with investment protection in existing proprietary technology

Collaboration Is Crucial
The trend toward collaboration and information sharing within the public-safety community is coming from the highest levels of government; the creation of the Department of Homeland Security is based on the consolidation of 22 different agencies within the federal government. The success of future intelligence initiatives clearly depends on the effective sharing of information among agencies at the top echelon, and between and among first responders on the ground. Also, the focus on homeland security and the war on terrorism is compelling public-safety agencies to move from a reactive model—responding to emergencies as they unfold—to a proactive model, where agencies assess and predict threats (when they can) and then respond more quickly than before. Converged IP networking is helping to make this proactive model a reality.

One of the shortcomings of the custom-built, ground-up network of old is its lack of interoperability. For example, in a single jurisdiction, police, fire, and emergency medical personnel may have had incompatible radio hand-held devices and networks. In an emergency situation, each group of first responders may have had some critical piece of information, but no one group had enough information to see the entire scenario. But IP networks facilitate real-time parallel workflow among agencies, enabling true collaboration and dynamic resource allocation for effective emergency response. No longer is each agency functioning in a vacuum; with an IP network, information gathered by each agency is readily available to every other agency involved in an emergency, and each agency can respond accordingly.

Another distinct advantage of IP-based networks is their approach to security. Information security is especially important in public-safety applications, and an IP network ensures that all authorized users—and only authorized users—have access to the information they need.

High-Performance Networks Increase Effectiveness
Another limitation of the many traditional networks is their low transmission speed. Police and fire departments, along with other public-safety agencies, were once limited to two-way voice communication, or "push to talk" contact. Lately, many agencies have begun incorporating text communication, such as computer terminals used in many police cruisers. Now, new requirements for real-time information access for security needs are influencing a move toward higher-bandwidth applications, such as enhanced database access, video monitoring, GPS integration, and real-time, interagency knowledge sharing.

When police are in pursuit of a suspect, they no longer have to rely on subjective descriptions of a person or a vehicle; with new IP networks, dispatch personnel can broadcast still pictures or video of the subject. Dispatchers at command and control centers can use GPS to track the movements of first responders in real time. And emergency personnel in the field have instant access to a wealth of information, including road maps, natural gas line charts, and homeowner contact information. Rather than just being able to query DMV databases for license plate and identification information, for example, police officers can search most-wanted lists, warrant lists, and other relevant databases to make the right policing decisions while they're patrolling. These types of solutions would be expensive and difficult to implement on low-speed, proprietary networks.

Creative Solutions to New Challenges
Public-safety agencies can adopt proven networking technologies to provide better services to their communities, but the harsh reality is that most agencies are being asked to do more with less. And agencies across the country are finding creative solutions to overcome the hurdle of initial cost while still providing the services the public needs.

Roughly 90% of all public-safety agencies have fewer than 100 officers, making them remarkably similar to small businesses in terms of size, and these smaller jurisdictions are banding together to increase their purchasing power. As a result, they can get better deals from vendors and spread implementation costs—and, perhaps more importantly, ongoing IT support costs—among several agencies.

Smaller suburban agencies are also looking to their larger neighbors for help. Big cities can actually benefit from connecting their smaller neighbors to their networks; the big city agency can expand the reach of its network, and smaller municipalities can use the city's existing network infrastructure to dramatically reduce implementation costs. These cross-jurisdictional agreements work to the advantage of all concerned, and have significantly enhanced the effectiveness of these public-safety agencies.

Another advantage of an IP network is that it does not need to be implemented all at once. In fact, many agencies are choosing to move to IP in three distinct steps:

The vehicle network. The obvious starting point is making sure first responders have the tools they need on the ground to deliver their services. Extending the network to the vehicle gives the people on the ground access to critical information that can inform their decisions in real time. It also allows for the secure exchange of information anytime, anywhere, and with any device. This means emergency departments can continue using the equipment they already have, and by tying their communications together via IP, they can begin to take advantage of all that an IP network can offer.

The access network. Connecting buildings and agencies together is the next step. By installing wireless network access points, or "hot spots," throughout a jurisdiction and using existing private network hot spots, agencies can dramatically increase the reach and effectiveness of their networks. Public-private partnerships are growing as the private sector steps in to share its bandwidth with public-safety agencies, leading to increased emergency service for not only the owner of the network, but also the community at large.

The network back end. Finally, with a scaleable, standards-based network, agencies can continually upgrade their back-end infrastructure. Concerns about obsolescence are a thing of the past. And new services on the network can now be made available—securely—to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

Nearly every government agency must accomplish more with fewer resources, but nowhere is the success of this task more important than in the emergency-response community. Since effective emergency response depends on getting the right information to the right people all the time, public-safety agencies can get a much-needed return on investment by prioritizing their adoption of IP-based technologies. They can address their most critical needs first and phase in a robust IP network over time.

What Cisco Offers
Cisco offers the experience of developing technology solutions for a wide range of the public-sector community at the federal, state, and local levels, as well as for private-sector firms. Cisco solutions are designed to ensure secure, reliable, and resilient communication among government agencies, first responders, and the private sector, enabling the right people to get the right information to manage security threats and other emergencies. In conjunction with these solutions, Cisco also offers:

  • In-depth case studies of successful homeland security and public safety solutions
  • Leading practices and important success factors
  • Business cases and ROI models tailored for the public sector
  • Network foundation white papers and materials that address innovative technology solutions
  • Educational resources for homeland security professionals
  • Relationships with Cisco collaborators for packaged applications and consulting services

September 15, 2003

About the Author
Ian Miller is a freelance writer and technical communicator living in Oakland, California.