Agency researchers are working to improve communications technology for first responders.
Amid broad federal, state and local efforts to improve public safety communications, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is leading research to establish interoperability among diverse government organizations that aid the public when it is most in peril. The agency’s goal is for legacy systems and new mobile technologies to exchange vital voice and data communications in a crisis.
The horrific attacks on 9/11 quickly illuminated the need for greater interoperability in communications among first responders. Since then, the requirement to share information and communicate effectively via radio during natural disasters, fires, crimes or catastrophes has only increased for police officers, firefighters and other public safety personnel.
Acting on recommendations from the 9/11 Commission, Congress passed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 to establish the First Responder Network Authority, known as FirstNet. The law provided $7 billion and 20 megahertz of electromagnetic spectrum for the public-private partnership development of a nationwide first-responder broadband network. Last year, FirstNet awarded a 25-year, $6.5 billion contract to AT&T to build, operate and maintain the high-speed network. Section 6303 of the law also provided the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) with $300 million through 2022 to support the transition to broadband and advance public safety communication technologies to operate on the new network.
The Public Safety Communications Research Division (PSCR), part of NIST’s Communications Technology Laboratory (CLT), is overseeing the related research and development (R&D) and programs as well developing corresponding requirements and standards used by 60,000 agencies and 5 million first responders, according to the laboratory. In addition, the PSCR conducts testing and evaluations, executes security research, and performs modeling and simulation.
While FirstNet received its congressional funding immediately through the law’s borrowing authority, NIST had to wait until the proceeds came in from the government’s spectrum auctions.
That level of windfall required careful planning, explains Dereck Orr, PSCR division chief, NIST. “Even though we didn’t have the money in 2012, we knew we needed to start planning for the day that we got it,” Orr says. At a 2013 summit of public safety, industry, academia and federal stakeholders and partner FirstNet, NIST identified several focus areas for the PSCR, “where we would use this once-in-a-lifetime injection of funding,” he says. “It is not only about the research that we are doing in-house. We are also putting out a lot of money in grants. So more than half of that [$300 million in congressional] money is going to outside partners through grants, cooperative agreements, prize challenges.”
The focus areas include developing location-based services; transitioning land mobile radio (LMR) to Long Term Evolution (LTE) devices; and developing mission-critical voice capabilities for LTE, user interface and user experience technologies, and data analytics. Two additional programmatic areas, security and resiliency, cut across all the focus areas. “We have to look at security concerns,” Orr emphasizes.
For the first round of research, the laboratory awarded $38.5 million last year to 33 entities under NIST’s Public Safety Innovation Accelerator Program. The first round of funding covers all focus areas except user interface and user experience research; last month the laboratory awarded grants for that research, Orr says.
For one of the main focus areas, the PSCR is helping to usher in the use of LTE radio devices from LMR devices—in operation since the 1920s. And for the time that the two radio technologies coexist, officials will make sure that the radios are interoperable. “So if someone shows up on the scene with just an LMR radio, they can talk to someone who shows up with a FirstNet radio,” Orr says.
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