Without reliable, robust, resilient connectivity, how can first responders confidently overcome communication challenges in times of crisis?

The last year has been particularly difficult for first response and disaster recovery teams. From global protests to natural disasters pushing the limits — not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic causing unprecedented change and uncertainty. Secure access to mission critical applications is a must, and any down time of core response systems, even for a few seconds, is simply not an option.

Resilience in a Crisis

First responders are on a mission to save lives, minimize damage, and protect themselves. In a typical year, the National Emergency Association (NENA) reported, on average, the U.S. has 240 million emergency calls, with 18% to 34% of those being life-threatening emergencies requiring an immediate response. In Los Angeles alone, there was a significant spike in public safety calls to almost 165,000 during the month of May, according to the city of Los Angeles. Additionally, an investigation by the FOX 8 I-Team found thousands of 911 calls went unanswered. Records obtained from the Cleveland Division of Police showed that more than 20,000 9-1-1 calls were made in June, but 2,094 did not get answered.

In the face of grave danger, be that when a wildfire breaks out, a hurricane hits, or severe flooding overwhelms an area, avoiding any loss of network connectivity is crucial. There is no room for error or disruption to the networks supporting first responders, and, thanks to advances in technology, resilient connectivity in critical conditions is available.

First response teams need to avoid loss of service, poor reception, and — in extreme cases — network outages. Emergency response missions learned a lot from the communication systems overload during 9/11, which spurred the creation of FirstNet in 2012, the first nationwide broadband network in the U.S. dedicated solely to first responders. However, despite these advances, first responders must have the ability to quickly deploy their technology without prior knowledge of either the existing network reliability or the terrain, and they need that technology to connect seamlessly to backend legacy systems.

Connectivity Is Critical for Crowd Control

In times of crisis and conflict, connectivity can mean life or death for everybody involved. 2020 was a year of mass demonstrations, public disorder, and “free camps.” The Achilles heel of crowd monitoring is the issue of mobile connectivity in crowded areas where local cellular networks are under immense strain. Real-time data and live video coming from multiple vantage points are key to coordinating the appropriate response to large gatherings, such as rallies or parades, yet, all too often, security teams are accessing real-time video and data faster from third-party sources, like social media streams, than from their own.

Leveraging technology that blends multiple networks to eliminate downtime while supporting data and video communications, voice over IP (VoIP), and secure communications, is the way forward. There is now a solution on the market that routes data on a packet level across multiple different technologies, mitigating packet loss, jitter, and bandwidth fluctuations that can occur at any time on any LTE, public, or private networks. Managing the information flow from the user side back to the infrastructure side in an intelligent manner has never been more important. When a single connection is dropped, the overall communications path with this technology remains strong.

In a world where poor connectivity impedes critical communication, network aggregation is the answer. This new type of connectivity technology is required to address issues like these successfully with reliability and stability at its core. This concept of using multiple connection paths allows first responders to connect pathways without the vulnerability of insufficient bandwidth to carry out key tasks in challenging environments.

By creating a virtual “network of networks,” any payload can be managed across different types of technologies or providers. From a public safety perspective, the development of such network aggregation devices expands the coverage area and combines bandwidth from the multiple connections to achieve up to 100 Mbps upload and 250 Mbps download speeds.

Across the ocean in Germany, the Bavarian police force upgraded its systems to use this new technology for enhanced reliability and stability during the Munich Security Conference. The conference is the world’s leading forum for debate on international security policy, gathering more than 600 international political decision-makers, 35 heads of government and state, and 100 cabinet ministers. An event this size would traditionally be difficult to secure given the scope, political nature, and popularity of attending politicians. In addition, the cellular networks would become highly congested due to the crowds both inside and outside the venue all vying for bandwidth.

In the past, the Bavarian Police Force relied on RF solutions, low-quality CCTV footage, low bandwidth, and sometimes absent cellular connectivity. This limited their reporting capabilities and their ability to make decisions in the field. Seeking to improve its situational awareness for fast decision-making and efficient monitoring of large crowds in real-time, it turned to network aggregation technology to reliably stream surveillance over the congested cellular networks at the conference back to their headquarters in real time with no disruption and no security threats due to the feed’s encrypted nature.

Challenging Conditions

During natural disasters, first responders find themselves scrambling to rapidly deploy communications infrastructure in areas of poor to nonexistent connectivity in regions that have been totally devastated. They simply don’t have time to juggle complex technology in mission critical situations.

In scenarios of near-total destruction, where rescuers are operating at multiple risk levels in the most difficult circumstances, maintaining communications between field teams, mobile command, and central command is imperative. Loss of communication due to poor connectivity doesn’t just mean a lost sightline to the victims but also to the first responders.

During the Santa Barbara County wildfires in California, a wind-driven brush fire triggered evacuations after breaking out along the Gaviota Coast. Reliable connectivity was key, enabling firefighters to communicate within a valley that was normally a dead zone. The blaze quickly charred 420 acres while threatening more than 100 structures that sat along the Gaviota Coast before firefighters and emergency crews were aware of the fire and able to gain an upper hand on the wild blaze.

While LTE networks provide higher bandwidth, lower latency, and improved spectrum efficiency compared to previous generations of cellular technology, LTE can also become spotty and drop signals in remote locations and other areas, especially if damaged or compromised. New network aggregation technology filled in these gaps in the Wide Area Network by seamlessly blending any available LTE with SAT comms to guarantee a connection for the responding teams. Data was sent from the bulldozers to the van, then on to the internet where the command and control center received the video feed for action. Four days later, the fire was 100% contained. More than 400 acres had burned with no structures damaged and no reported injuries. Evacuations were lifted for all areas.

Ultimate Communication

Recent events have emphasized that ubiquitous connectivity underpinned by pioneering innovation is an absolute must — not a luxury — to ensure the well-being of civilians and first responders. To communicate and collaborate in the field is to identify real-time threats, ensure operation responses are effective, and deliver scalability where required.