5G will be the bedrock technology to fulfill the changing needs of first responders in these unprecedented times.
22 Oct 2021

First Responders: Why 5G Networks Are The Future of Mission-Critical Communications

First responders’ duties and responsibilities are changing and expanding in two crucial and essential dimensions.

  • The 24-hour nature of conventional media and the emergence of social media has made it easier for real-world emergencies to create secondary problems first responders must address.

  • Longer-term emergencies like infectious disease outbreaks and civil unrest have become a fixture in the crisis landscape.

These trends require better and faster mission-critical communication solutions that enable emergency responders to get critical information and work more responsively, flexibly, proactively, and collaboratively. 5G networks will be a technological foundation.

What Is A 5G Communications Network?

You’ve probably heard about some of the benefits of the fifth generation of mobile cellular network technology (5G). In short, 5G networks virtually eliminate all compromises from mobile connectivity in urban environments by offering connection speed and quality over the air, once only possible through wires.

With no practical limits to the number of connected devices or users in one network design in a given area (i.e., no overloads), first responders can do their jobs more efficiently and effectively and do much more.

How Can 5G Networks Help Public Safety?

5G will enable first-response capabilities previously confined to offices or other fixed locations to be done everywhere and a degree of support, real-time intelligence, and proactivity in emergency services not previously possible.

This technology will enable real-time alignment across the operations of an entire agency, between agencies, and with third parties, with straightforward information access available for users and devices at any individual point of operation.

5G Networks Help Emergency Response Get Ahead

It is not enough for emergency services to get to the scene and save the day. They must worry about everything the incident sends out and elicits from cyberspace. Hoarding. Panic buying. Telecom failure and network overload. Resistance to medical care. Depressed social and economic activity. Civil unrest. Even violence can ensue in the wake of an incident, emergency, or natural disaster, and it can linger long after whatever set it off is resolved.

In short, these information storms are making our problems more prominent. Once started, they’re tough to stop, making it doubly important that first responders, and the governments that employ them, do everything possible to keep them from happening in the first place, either by minimizing chaos during an incident and its immediate aftermath or by preventing it entirely. 

Ironically, advanced communications technology, a vital catalyst of these storms, will help authorities regain the high ground. Compared to critical communications devices the average civilian or bad actor has in their hands, the critical communications tech first responders use to communicate and coordinate is often severely behind the curve. However, 5G networks will play a significant role in helping them get ahead and stay ahead.

5G will be the primary connection for remote first-response alternatives.

5G Mission-Critical Communication Helps First Response Stay Ahead

Traditionally, we’ve tended to think about, resource, and prepare for emergencies as fast-moving discrete incidents. But first responders are increasingly expected to cope with longer-term crises, emergencies where staying ahead is as vital as getting ahead. During a viral outbreak, first responders must:

  • Know what’s happening.
  • Know where to go and what to do when confronted with a situation.
  • Find new ways to engage with civilians beyond standard in-person channels.

5G will be the primary connecting technology for these remote alternative systems.

5G Networks Give You An Edge

Cloud computing is where users request a data center to process calculations, with answers sent back to the user. This technology has already revolutionized operations in the business-critical public and private sectors, but first responders have not always benefitted because the wait times can be problematic.

Edge computing moves the calculations to the terminal, thus eliminating this wait while reaching anywhere a 5G signal does, already providing significant value to emergency responders.

5G Network Slicing Means Dedicated Access

Never before was there a way to define and build a genuinely dedicated lane through a cellular network. LTE and previous network architectures could limit last-mile priority access, but it was best-effort traffic once it goes through the web. But with network slicing, the subscribed level of service can take on several forms.

A good or better service level agreement (SLA) can be applied with end-to-end communications given a dedicated network path to avoid congestion, prioritizing different traffic types (reliable contacts such as voice or data) while guaranteeing lower latency to support applications like Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR) and Situational Awareness. This will be a game-changer in operability for first responders, support agencies, and companies.

Remote Support & Contextual Display

In the future, first responders might wear an AR helmet or headset that will feed updates, instructions, emergency calls, and contextual data, enabling more effective personnel deployments and easy access to emergency situation-relevant prompts.

Junior personnel will do their jobs more effectively. Unfamiliar buildings or underground spaces and equipment will be easier to navigate. Medical conditions, allergies, and other relevant data will be available without asking or searching.

These capabilities will boost first-response efficiency and efficacy while minimizing friction with the general public. And you won’t have to wait for an AR head-mounted device (HMD) – a mobile computer can do most of the same things. 

Edge AI

City streets full of self-driving cars represent the future of edge AI. Benefits before then will likely include automated emergency responses, such as traffic rerouting, public announcements, and deployment of surveillance and medical supply drones. Automating these functions will enable personnel to focus on what edge AI doesn’t do well, like public safety agencies saving lives.

Enhanced Mission-Critical Data Integrity

Pervasive edge computing might sound insecure, but it increases your small technological footprint’s digital resilience and security. Public protection is greatly needed, with governments and agencies increasingly targeted for cyberattacks.

Edge computing minimizes the possibility of human error (still a key contributor to most cybersecurity breaches) to protect data integrity at an individual device level while enabling the same level of online security once only available at HQ to blanket your footprint.

Smart City Digital Transformation

Emergency response infrastructure is the logical starting point for smart city transformation. Once a city’s ability to resolve emergencies and provide public safety is brought into the 21st century, it’s easier to address other quality-of-life areas and challenges such as pollution and emission reduction, energy consumption, noise levels, etc.

Unified Communications & Collaboration (UCC)

It’s the dream of any city administrator to have an emergency response command structure where you can:

  • Communicate with any first responder.
  • Share information between users or points on the system.
  • Initiate and supervise corrective actions.

But real life is rarely like this, and technological incompatibility is the primary reason. A city’s broadband infrastructure comprises different technologies bought by other departments at different times. And it’s not shared quickly nor accessed easily in remote locations. 5G networks can bridge these gaps.

For example, with Push-to-Talk (PTT) communications, if the police, paramedics, and fire department want to talk to each other at the scene of an emergency, personnel may need to carry multiple walkie-talkies, with each hopefully having a fresh battery.

5G can eliminate this bloat and clutter by converging all mission-critical network services within the Cloud, enabling inter-department communications through a single device. Since it will use the same network technology that civilians use, coordination with media, witnesses, and other third parties will be much easier, enabling the nipping of miscommunications in the bud.

5G enables medical expertise to reach beyond the physical presence of a healthcare practitioner.

Remote Healthcare

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for vastly improved remote healthcare services capabilities in three aspects.

  • Lockdowns prevent people from coming to hospitals and clinics for non-communicable but lethal ailments. They must be contacted and addressed in other ways.
  • During an outbreak, the importance of remotely determining who requires in-person care and who does not, and minimizing false positives, is critical.
  • With medical misinformation rampant, healthcare authorities need reliable and trusted ways to communicate with patients, at-risk groups, and the general public.

5G networks enable medical expertise to reach beyond the physical presence of a medical expert. Testing and preliminary diagnosis can be made remotely or even automatically, while medical professionals can do patient consultations, psychotherapy, and pain amelioration sessions in VR. All represent excellent ways to reduce healthcare costs and improve outcomes, in emergency situations or not.

How Do We Get There?

Of course, talking about the wonders of broadband in the future is easy. Getting there is challenging. But to get there, we must first get started. At present, first responders are at a tech disadvantage compared to pretty much any & all relevant third parties. And if 5G networks aren’t deployed in your jurisdiction yet, they soon will be. It’ll widen if you don’t start working to close that gap now.

What If You’re Already Using Private LTE?

Private LTE can continue to do what you’ve been asking it to do (unified comms, modest edge computing capabilities) for the foreseeable future. However, it’s not something you would want to use for AR or automated drone control. And if your organization is already technologically comfortable with LTE, upgrading your own mission-critical communications to 5G will only require a modest investment and learning curve.

Do You Need a 5G Rugged Computer Now?

If 5G connectivity hasn’t arrived in your jurisdiction yet, a 5G device purchase might seem hard to justify. But a rugged computer is built for a 5-7 years service life, so its 5G capabilities likely won’t sit idle for long.

There’s also a good chance this purchase will be your first AR device, and you won’t want the 5G module connecting that AR to be in some other device. This will only waste power and add another device to carry, and device bloat is something 5G should be helping you avoid.

Learn more about the 5G-enabled solutions Getac has available.

Randy Pfeifer is Getac’s Wireless Strategist where he delivered one of the first public safety certified solutions. He has over 25 years in the wireless industry, spanning from public and private spectrums including WiFi, NFC, laser, cellular, CBRS and LiFi.

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