For almost a century, radios were the primary means of communication within the public safety community, linking personnel to their dispatchers and each other while cellular services offered users high-speed wireless voice and data communications over a broad geographic area, significant benefits over traditional radio systems. In addition, cellular service providers have started offering a variety of “public safety LTE” services, such as broadband push-to-talk (PTT), making cellular devices increasingly useful to the public safety and emergency management community.
Each technology has advantages and disadvantages. While its data services are limited, radio systems can provide one-to-many voice communications on a single frequency/channel, which is vital in large-scale response operations where bandwidth can quickly become congested. Radio systems also broadcast using external antennas at higher power than mobile phones and tablets—features that reduce interference and increase coverage area—and can continue to communicate radio-to-radio even if the radio infrastructure fails. Cellular systems’ strength lies in their high-speed data capabilities and nationwide network coverage. While cell service is vulnerable when natural disasters destroy cell towers or the network is overwhelmed by traffic volume, vendors are working toward solutions such as priority and preemption services such as those used by FirstNet and Verizon.
While cellular services offer many benefits they are unlikely to displace radio systems in the foreseeable future, but it is likely that the two technologies will merge. Service providers and vendors are already offering gateways and software that can integrate the two, and public safety agencies across the United States are implementing these solutions to enhance their operational efficiency.
The benefits of merging the systems will be to take advantage of the benefits of each system to increase services, reliability, and reduced expense. Executive leadership may prefer to use smartphones with PTT apps as they don’t have a true need for expensive radios. Temporary users can be authorized to use a personal smartphone on an integrated network for temporary use or for predetermined periods, such as a planned event or emergency situation. Access can be revoked after the event or at a pre-programmed date to ensure only those who have a need to access the system have access.
Integrating radio and cellular communications platforms offers public safety agencies and emergency management staff unprecedented flexibility and a host of new options. As with any technology, however, careful thought, research, planning, and training are requisite for success.
- Start by identifying needs and learning which aspects of radio/cellular integration could meet them.
- Focus your integration plan on the features that will satisfy your highest priority needs first.
- Involve your organization’s communications experts early and build a working relationship with the cellular vendor.
- Be realistic about your expectations.
- Roll out the implementation slowly, making sure all personnel affected—system managers and technicians as well as end users—know what to expect and are thoroughly trained.
- Monitor progress and track problems that arise.
- Welcome feedback and act quickly to resolve issues so personnel do not get frustrated and back away from using integrated features.
SAFECOM and NCSWIC Release LMR/LTE Integration: Best Practices