Technology in public safety is advancing at an exponential pace. First responders require broadband connectivity at the scene of an incident to support an array of in-vehicle devices, such as laptops and tablets and mission critical applications, such computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and automatic vehicle location (AVL), to enable faster and more efficient responses in the field.
Vital information provided by these systems, including location, navigation, hazmat and building information, enables first responders to arrive on scene more informed, and better prepared to protect both the public safety and their own.
Fire departments offering emergency medical services require connected EKGs (electrocardiograms), digital fire plans, tracking and telemetry applications, so teams can efficiently attend to fires, begin patient treatment, and coordinate with other first responders and emergency rooms.
While the benefits of technological advances appear obvious, the proliferation of in-vehicle applications, mobile devices, and wearable gadgets is creating a headache for IT teams. Each onboard or wearable device requires a fast, reliable wireless connection and, as the number of applications has grown, so too has the number of ways to connect them. Firefighters need wireless connectivity that performs as well as wireline networks, and each system needs to be connected securely and managed remotely.
One option that IT Managers are now deploying is purpose-built, high performance vehicle networking solutions. There are in-vehicle routers and gateways available that provide enough bandwidth to support multiple, data-intensive applications and devices. They offer features like Gigabit Ethernet and Gigabit Wi-Fi for the Local Area Network (LAN) or Vehicle Area Network (VAN), and LTE-Advanced to support huge volumes of traffic over the cellular network. These routers also deliver secure, managed and uninterrupted connectivity to enable mission critical applications to communicate back to command and control teams in real time, allowing fire departments to reduce response times.
High performance routers can effectively turn firetrucks into a truly mobile office at an incident scene, enabling all connected technologies to be fully operational up to 800 hundred feet from the vehicle. This is vital for wearable devices used by individual firefighters. New developments in vehicle technology enable the creation of a secure VAN that serves both wired and wireless devices, and connects everything to the department and operations teams via a secure wireless wide area connection (WWAN). With this type of architecture, fire departments can improve firefighter safety and increase effectiveness, by enabling crews to provide the right response at the right time.
So what are the specific network challenges facing fire crews, and how can high performance routers address them?
Maintaining constant communications
One of the biggest challenges for in-vehicle applications for firefighters is maintaining uninterrupted communication. Firefighters need to be in constant contact with their enterprise-based operations teams to provide real-time scene updates, while also collaborating with medical response teams or law enforcement. This information is easily exchanged when fire apparatus are at the station via Wi-Fi, and administrative tasks such as software updates and uploading/downloading of large data files can be undertaken while on premises.
However, complications arise once the apparatus has been sent on a call. The in-vehicle router is responsible for maintaining the same level of network connectivity that crews experience at the station while the vehicle is on the move. Some solutions attempt to extend the Wi-Fi connection from the station until further down the road, but then disconnect before a cellular connection has been established. This means dispatch data can potentially be off air for between 30 and 40 seconds within the first minute of a call. This nearly one minute loss of connectivity can affect the entire response, especially if average response times are four minutes. The first minute is critical for location, navigation, building plan/hazmat information, which is key in the overall approach at the scene.
High performance routers allow applications to make a seamless transition between Wi-Fi and cellular networks. Some solutions have the ability to use multiple cellular and Wi-Fi networks, and are able to smoothly manage network handoffs, and can be customized based on department policies.
Moving data rapidly:
Once reliable connectivity is established, the next challenge for crews is uploading or downloading large files at speed while on call. Building plans and video footage require large amounts of bandwidth and reliable network connections. Carrier deployment of LTE-A networks has paved the way to supporting a wide variety of high bandwidth applications over a single connection. LTE-A improves network capacity and coverage by delivering very high data rates. The faster the network connection, the faster crews can get access to the data they need, and the faster they’re able to react at the scene. This includes building plans, bird’s eye views, hazardous material information, access and egress routes and fire control systems. Firefighters with body worn cameras can stream live video back to operations using the fire apparatus as a Wi-Fi hotspot. High performance routers offer the faster LTE-Advanced (LTE-A) connection.
The value for command staff is greater awareness of incident scenes. Rescue personnel can communicate with hospitals, and paramedics on-scene can send EKGs via telemedicine applications through the in-vehicle router, so that when a patient eventually leaves the scene and reaches a hospital, their medical history arrives with them.
Remote network and fleet operations management:
With all the recent technological advances in equipment, fire departments have recognized the need for a complete management solution that can enable operations, IT and fleet managers to see the location and status of the fleet and configure or update routers, connected devices and mission critical applications over-the-air from a single system. For example, the Seattle Fire Department recently deployed a successful communications solution using high performance vehicle routers. With 33 fire stations and over 60 vehicles including fire trucks, ladder trucks, and medical units, they recognized the need for IT to accurately monitor these mobile devices.
High performance vehicle routers also provide network management platforms that enable remote, centralized monitoring and troubleshooting of network performance for an entire fleet. Centralized network management platforms provide dispatchers with enhanced visibility on the status of critical applications and vehicles, and offer additional accountability in the event of unforeseen circumstances or equipment failures. Maintenance information can be sent directly to the teams who can understand it, and who are responsible for fixing it.
Features such as vehicle tracking to support fleet management operations are also important. Newer routers are incorporating inertial navigation systems, with built-in accelerometers and gyroscopes, to keep track of emergency vehicles when they don’t have access to GPS location data. Challenging landscapes and urban canyons often provide teams with environments too difficult for typical GPS systems to work effectively. Mobile routers with inertial navigation systems deliver superior visibility in any circumstance, providing uninterrupted, timely and accurate location information to mobile devices and mission critical applications, while also enabling dispatch teams to monitor vehicle locations and progress on call.
Technology is significantly improving the overall effectiveness of firefighters worldwide. And purpose-built high performance vehicle routers now provide fire departments with sufficient speed, bandwidth and range to support the wide variety of devices and applications that protect firefighters and those they serve.
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