Public Safety Communications

Jul 15, 2014

Much activity and improvement in the realm of public safety communications interoperability have occurred since the horrific events of September 11th, 2001. One very promising area is that of wireless paramedicine, the ability to get paramedics, and the health community they support, the information they need when needed.

Despite all the successes, often driven by the practitioner community, a great deal remains to be accomplished. While having made some progress, two issues that continue to face major hurdles, primarily in the areas of policy and governance, are the use of 700 MHz broadband for mission critical public safety data and a national level vision and strategy for Next Generation 9-1-1.

Our ageing population increases the need for mobile healthcare (mHealth). This is absolutely dependent on getting the right information to the right people, at the right time, in the right place, and on the right device. While there has been an explosion of various “apps” and innovative technology (including capabilities like wireless ultrasound, remote home vital signs monitoring, and virtual referrals to specialty services), the one thing we continue to lag on is a national public safety broadband capacity.

Public safety and emergency management agencies are facing a huge challenge and massive opportunity with the onset of Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1), which Canada’s current 40-year-old system must move towards. This is critical and overdue.

New technologies are slowly being implemented in a patchwork of public safety answering points, or 9-1-1 centres, across Canada. For instance, a texting service that began commercial testing in 2013, now allows members of the deaf, deafened, hard of hearing or speech impaired community to sign up for this service with their wireless provider. Servicing only a few major cities so far, T9-1-1 will be more widely available as 9-1-1 call centre upgrades are completed. (see

This is a great first step. It provides agencies an opportunity to walk before they run towards full implementation of NG9-1-1. Once fully implemented, which will take years, NG9-1-1 will exchange a wide range of information with the public – such as photos, videos, and data (including personal health information).

Many new technologies are already being worked on. A quick look into the future will see this scenario as a reality: Imagine your loved one, who has a wireless pacemaker, collapsing in front of you. Instead of dialling 9-1-1, you quickly open an app. A touch of the screen will contact NG9-1-1 and transmit your precise location; details of the patient’s health history and a stream of data from their pacemaker flows immediately towards paramedics – who have already been alerted and are on the way!

Of course, the true measure of this vision is not financial, but that of returning the patient safely home to their anxious family. However, take a moment to contemplate the widespread savings throughout the entire healthcare system.

In a similar realm, the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATAAlliance) recently launched a national program on mHealth. Part of that program saw the creation of a new “Mobile Heath Advisory Board.” Its vision is “of a health care system that adopts a ‘mobile first’ mindset, thereby creating a better user experience for all Canadians and driving cost efficiencies in the delivery of health care.” (

What is 700 MHz and why is it so important to PUBLIC SAFETY and EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT?

August 2011 marked the transition from analog television to digital in Canada, freeing up spectrum, often called the “Digital Dividend,” for potential use by public safety. Many private and public agencies were vying for the additional spectrum, with some estimates placing the value of 20 MHz of this spectrum as high as $2 billion.

700 MHz is often called “beachfront” property due to its ability to travel long distances yet still penetrate buildings well. These attributes are valuable to public safety and commercial carriers who wish to licence the spectrum for resale back to consumers and responders alike.

For more about 700 MHz and public safety’s “Call to Action” and a wealth of information, templates and tools, please see

As Will Rogers once said: “A vision without a plan is just a dream.” Based on this principle, the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group (CITIG) began working with many of Canada’s leading experts in 2008 to develop what is now known as the Communications Interoperability Strategy (CISC) for Canada.

The Strategy worked its way through the approval processes and was almost completed in December of 2010 when CITIG launched its drive for the 700 MHz spectrum, known as “Action 700.” The Canadian Associations of Fire, Police and Paramedic Chiefs confirmed the need for a national public safety broadband capability, and CITIG announced its intention to seek 20MHz of the 700MHz spectrum for public safety use in Canada at the 2010 Canadian Public Safety Interoperability Workshop held in Victoria.

In January 2011, at a ceremony hosted by the Province of Ontario, the Federal, Provincial and Territorial (FPT) Ministers Responsible for Emergency Management approved the CISC. The strategy included multiple action plans with concrete timelines and deliverables, including an action plan for 700 MHz. As a result, this issue went from being a responder driven vision to a confirmed national public safety and emergency priority.

While the roadmap for this has a “home” in the CISC’s Action Plans, the same is not true for NG9-1-1. CITIG and their partners, the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) Canada and the Canadian Chapter of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) subsequently joined forces to host the “NG9-1-1 National Governance and Coordination Workshop in 2013. With about 70 of Canada’s leading experts in attendance, the workshop resulted in a number of key recommendations. (See:

First and foremost (and no surprise due to the importance of governance) was the recommendation that: “NG9-1-1 be developed and considered as a Communications Interoperability Strategy for Canada (CISC) Action Plan and be governed under the Communications Interoperability Strategy for Canada governance model.” While widely supported, this recommendation has yet to be implemented.

In a very positive first step, Industry Canada, which regulates Canada’s radio spectrum, announced in March 2012 that it was setting aside 10 MHz of the 700 MHz broadband spectrum for “public safety use” in Canada and along the Canada-U.S. Border. Our American counterparts had, just the previous month, received the full 20 MHz of 700 MHz broadband spectrum for their use – along with a promise of approximately $7 billion to start building a national public safety broadband network.

While the Industry Canada announcement was met with wide praise from responder agencies across the country, they still anxiously await a decision, after more than two years, on the second 10 MHz. Industry Canada has certainly been busy, conducting research, reaching out to stakeholders and developing a position. While their recommendations are confidential, we are cautiously optimistic that a positive announcement will be forthcoming.
On the technical front, a great deal has taken place since 2012. Led by the Centre for Security Science (CSS), a part of Defence Research and Development Canada, in partnership with a wide range of stakeholders in Canada, the United States and internationally, various technical working groups have developed a solid technical foundation for both the Canadian Public Safety Broadband Network (PSBN) and how it would link to the US “FirstNet” along the border. (See

The CSS is also working on a “deployable” 700 MHz system. With the vast majority of Canada, like most of the world, being remote and lacking communications infrastructure, the requirement for alternate systems, sometimes as small as a back pack, is obvious. However, technical solutions are not simple.

With this in mind, CSS is again partnering with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate to plan the Canada-U.S. Resiliency III Experiment, called CAUSE III, to improve cross-border interoperability and regional resilience through enhanced situational awareness. CAUSE III will take place in the fall of 2014 along the Canada-U.S. border between Alberta and Montana.

While Canadian Science and Tech leaders, and their industry partners, drive forward on technical aspects of mission critical broadband data, we still lag on the far more important issues of governance and policy.

In early 2012, CATAAlliance, in partnership with CITIG, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), Public Safety Canada and the Senior Officials Responsible for Emergency Management (SOREM), organized a workshop to make recommendations on the governance of the future “Public Safety Broadband Network” (PSBN). After a broad exploration of governance models and best practices, the resulting recommendation was to create a new Not-for-Profit (NFP) corporation.

Key to this choice was the fact that the recommended governance roadmap respected Federal, Provincial, Territorial (FPT) and Municipal participation. This new NFP would also include such other stakeholders as the tri-service Chief’s Associations, FCM, and CITIG.
Though not discussed in 2012, this NFP could also help attain other “national” interoperability goals such as NG9-1-1, Alerting, Public Safety Cloud, Multi-Agency Situational Awareness Systems, and others.

Though rarely discussed in the media, one of the most critical aspects of handling public safety and emergency management events, small or large, is the effectiveness and pertinence of policies and procedures. Often called “Standard Operation Procedures”, these SOPs are based on years of experience, lessons learned, legal requirements, and a host of other considerations.

As any Incident Commander knows, one of their main responsibilities is to review SOPs as part of any emergency “after action report” process. Often, this means making changes or, in some cases, drafting new SOPs, for review and subsequent implementation by the organization(s) involved.

What are the SOPs for a public safety broadband network? Who will have final say on who gets the majority of the broadband capacity during any given incident? What if police, fire, paramedics and emergency managers all believe THEY need the majority of the spectrum? Who decides?

For instance, imagine an emerging incident along the Canada-U.S. border. With Detroit-based FirstNet users on their side of the border, and Windsor- based PSBN users in Canada, both requiring the full 20 MHz, who gets the final say? What are the SOPs? What is the best governance model for cross border interoperability?

These are just a few of the questions that will be discussed at CITIG’s upcoming “Canada-U.S. Bi-national Cross Border Interoperability Workshop” being held in Windsor on 20-22 October 2014. Thanks to a grant from the Motorola Solutions Foundation, the Workshop is designed to support and promote the transfer of best practices and experience, and the development public safety interoperability between nations.

There is absolutely no doubt that Canada has been well served by the various public safety and emergency management leaders spearheading improvements to our communications interoperability capabilities. Over the past few years they have been committed to moving these issues forward. But there is much more to accomplish. As Robert Frost’s poem said so well: “…I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.”

Both the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group are committed to continuing our efforts to improve public safety communications interoperability in Canada and with our U.S. partners. Why not join us?

Chief Jeff Brooks worked as a Paramedic for Forest District Ambulance Service from 1986 until 2001 when he was promoted to Supervisor. He became the County of Lambton’s EMS Quality Assurance Manager in 2004, and later became EMS Acting Manager/Chief in 2008. Jeff is an Equivalency Examiner for the Ontario Ministry of Health. A Certified Municipal Manager with his EMS Executive Designation, he continues to work on committees for the Ontario Association of Paramedic Chiefs.

Inspector (Ret.) Lance Valcour O.O.M. is the Vice President of Public Safety & Emergency Management for the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance. He retired from the Ottawa Police Service in 2010 after 33 years of service. He then led the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group, and now chairs the International Association of Chiefs of Police Law Enforcement Information Management Section and is Technical Advisor to the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police Information and Communications Technology Committee.
© FrontLine Security 2014