Broadband Spectrum

Mar 15, 2012

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When my generation of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) personnel thinks of data sharing in the field, we have visions of Squad 51 using their Biophone; a combination voice and telemetry radio communications system. Paramedics could call the base hospital and not only talk to the doctor but could also send live cardiac data by way of electrocardiogram rhythms.

Many of us still remember the days of VHF radios in our ambulances. However, many lacked the use of portable radios. As for calling anyone, we would often find the one land-line telephone in the patient's residence, and were excited when it was a push-button style. We in EMS also had the future shown to us when Dr. McCoy used his tricorder to asses and diagnose a patient... often the poor security guy in the red shirt. Every science fiction story had some hand-held device designed to assess and treat patients. Then came the 1990s and the cellular telephone. This brick allowed us to call "anyone" we wanted from the field... as long as there was coverage, and the battery didn't die.

Well the future is now. This generation knows these types of devices. On any given day the average 10 year old is carrying a device with more voice and data sharing capabilities in his pocket than we provide our frontline responders.

Today, our staff has options when it comes to voice communications. We provide them with high end portable radios with VHF and digital capabilities, and even encrypted channels. They often carry a portable radio worth thousands of dollars... yet still use them as glorified walkie-talkies.

Many agencies have provided their staff with cellular telephones, however many have locked out most of the applications and even the ability to call freely, due to cost and security concerns. Rarely are these voice devices used to their full potential.

Back in the day, we in EMS had the future shown to us when Dr. McCoy used his tricorder to asses and diagnose a patient... often the poor security guy in the red shirt. Every science fiction story had some hand-held device designed to asses and to treat patients. Well the future is now. This generation knows these types of devices; on any given day the average 10 year old is carrying a device with more voice and data sharing capabilities in their pocket then we provide our frontline responders.

Even as I write this article, I browse through the App Store on my phone and find apps for stethoscopes and heart scans.

Much work has been done on other Smartphone applications such as one to reproduce the techniques ophthalmologists and optometrists use to determine the prescription that a patient needs and, another, a lens-free microscope weighing less than two ounces and designed to attach to most camera-based cell phones. The microscope allows on-site samples, such as blood and saliva smears, to be loaded onto single-use chips that slide into the microscope; and, because of the large aperture of the sensor array, no special alignment or cleaning techniques are necessary. This makes it ideal technology for field use. While paramedics currently take blood glucose tests in the field, can one imagine the support, especially in rural parts of our country, where more expansive testing would come in handy?

While there exist thousands of medical apps in the App Store, and more being developed each day, the Smartphone technology is only one device in our future medical jump kit. Telemedicine expands the care patients can receive both in the field and also in remote areas of our country. Live video feeds and data sharing bring immediate consultations from tertiary care centres to remote clinics and hospitals.

Live data can also greatly assist EMS providers in their scene response and deployment. Imagine if an ambulance that is responding to a motor vehicle incident at an intersection could tap its on-board computer into the intersection camera; allowing the paramedics to actually see the incident prior to arrival on scene. Or earlier than that, the Emergency Medical Dispatcher could look at the camera and determine first-hand the resources that might actually be required - after the cell-phone rescue ranger called in "Armageddon."

Data sharing with our partners will allow paramedics to communicate directly with health care providers as well as other first responders, such as fire and police services. Having joint access to such tools as in building 3D and building cameras would allow EMS commanders to monitor their staff work in dangerous situations. Using this technology ensures providing the best care for our patients as well as also looking after our staff.

But all of these great devices, and those not invented as yet, come with limitations. The biggest one currently is securing the necessary bandwidth to operate these devices in the field. Much like our original brick cellular telephones not having coverage, our data devices will only work as well as the system that supports them. This is why the 700 Mhz Broadband for Mission Critical Public Safety Data is needed.

The 700 Mhz Broadband - A North American Need for BETTER Public Safety?
On 14 March 2012, Industry Canada announced that it was setting aside 10 MHz of 700 MHz broadband spectrum for public safety use in Canada and along the Canada/U.S. Border. On May 3, 2012 the Honourable Vic Toews, Minister of Public Safety, reaffirmed the commitment of our government to public safety with the allocation of 10 MHz of the 700 MHz bandwidth for the use of emergency responders. The decision to assign only 10 MHz of this spectrum, and not the full 20 MHz that the U.S. has provided their responders, will ultimately affect public safety agencies' ability to deploy mission critical data well into the future. While the Government's decision to assign 10 MHz is applauded as a first step, it has been stated, proven and scientifically supported that there is a requirement for the full 20 MHz of spectrum that our U.S. responder partners received. Canada's first responders need ubiquitous access to 20 MHz of spectrum.

Not assigning the second 10 MHz of spectrum, known as the "D" Block in the US, to Canadian public safety will directly impact Police, Fire, EMS, Emergency Management and other responder agencies' ability to fulfil their most important mission over the coming decades. Public safety's voice must be heard. We need the right tools to protect and save lives.

Public Safety in the United States of America has been working for years on a similar initiative. On February 17, 2012, US Congress agreed to allocate the "D Block" to public safety and support the development of a mission-critical, nationwide public safety broadband network. In a live webcast press conference four key Democratic Senators invoked stories about police, fire, and EMS personnel killed on 9/11 as they announced an historic deal to give America's first responders a nationwide interoperable wireless broadband network. On February 22, 2012, President Barack Obama signed into law the payroll-tax-cut extension legislation, which reallocates the 700 MHz D Block spectrum to public safety and provides $7 billion in federal funding to help pay for the build out of the nationwide LTE network for first responders.

The US decision is good news for Canada as we in public safety must continue to raise awareness about securing the corresponding block of spectrum for Canadian responders. It is vitally important our public safety and security requirements that we acquire the full 20 MHz allocation, just as the US has decided to do. This is the amount of bandwidth that is need to make effective use of modern communications tools during emergencies. The case for the full 20 MHz of spectrum in response to realistic and frequent occurrences is proven and scientifically supported. The faster our responders get all of the information they need on a call for service the better they will serve our citizens in every community.

Once Canadian public safety efforts secure the full spectrum and start to build this North American-wide capability, the issue of radio and IT convergence becomes most important. Public safety leaders and politicians must be reminded that this spectrum is not designed for traditional responders' radios but for broadband data. These data include video, situational awareness, in-building 3-D location and tracking, wireless sensors for hazardous materials, and so on. These systems require large amounts of data and a network with sufficient dedicated capacity for public safety requirements. Canadian police, fire, EMS and other emergency professionals need access to modern and reliable communications capabilities, including high speed data and video, to communicate with each other across agencies and jurisdictions during emergencies and during day-to-day operations. Public safety requirements must take precedence the right tools protect and save lives.

There are those, mostly in industry, who suggest that responders would be best supported by commercial networks. While we all currently use commercial networks for our voice applications, a number of serious unresolved issues have arisen, including the lack of pre-emption for our devices. One need not look too far to find frequent examples of non-robust commercial systems failing, due to systems that crashed due to disasters or simply being overloaded by too many users on the networks. We cannot afford to make this same mistake with broadband. We no longer want to be in line in the lobby waiting for our turn to use the spectrum. The responders voice must be heard in the boardroom where the allocation decisions on 700 Mhz spectrum are made.

To ensure public safety retains the top priority it deserves, EMS professionals must have access to modern, reliable, and robust communications capabilities, including high speed data and video, to coordinate with each other and across agencies and jurisdictions during emergencies and day-to-day operations. Paramedics cannot continue to wait for service when bad things happen. The EMS community needs to "own" and control access to this spectrum. For instance, paramedics should not have to compete for bandwidth with the teenager who is sending live video to all of his friends of the very emergency those paramedics are handling. Not surprisingly, there is a public expectation that, when things go wrong, a responder can communicate within their agencies as well as with their partners in the community.

The Need
EMS agencies should be able to communicate, using voice and data, from coast to coast and North and South. Ideally a paramedic from British Columbia or California should be able to step off a plane in Halifax and immediately have his or her equipment recognized by the system.

EMS leaders must join together and take action now to acquire the full bandwidth in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that ties directly to community and responder safety, innovation and public health. Do your part:

  • Get informed and put this issue on your organization's radar;
  • Inform your boards, municipalities, provincial/territorial governments and other governing bodies of the a significant impact on public safety in Canada that spectrum allocations will have;
  • Work with your tri-services colleagues and others to advocate a strong voice for public safety in advance of spectrum allocations;
  • Act on mobilization information as it is sent by EMSCC and others;
  • Join the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group (CITIG), (

EMS Leaders can help move interoperability forward in Canada by joining and supporting CITIG. Since 2007, CITIG has been incredibly valuable to the emergency responder tri-services (police, fire, and Emergency Medical Services), as well as to their national and international partners (Industry, all levels of government, and NGOs). CITIG is "the unified voice" for first responders on all interoperability issues. It has demonstrated its abilities by its collective approach and a strong track record of measurable delivery and timely achievements. Responder interoperability remains key, and the future of CITIG must be secured. Membership is free, and the return is priceless.

It is incumbent on each of our agencies to provide our staff the best and most up-to-date equipment available. EMS organizations must not only keep up with current technologies, but must also work with industry and governments to make these technologies available to everyone and they must be cost effective. This is about providing our EMS staff the required equipment to take care of our patients as well as themselves in the field. We have come a long way from calling Rampart on our Biophone, but we need to be the generation that sees our way to tricorder medicine...

Pascal Rodier has over 24 years of emergency response, interoperability, and public safety experience. He took part in writing the Communications Interoperability Strategy for Canada and the Communications Interoperability Action Plan for Canada. He can be reached by email at:
© FrontLine Security 2012