Equipment & Gear, Major Incidents, Operations, Product Reviews, Special Topics

Smartphone App Interconnects Public Safety Personnel at Large-Scale Events

Issue 11 and Volume 40.

The success of any event depends on the coordinated efforts of all parties involved, as well as the effectiveness of the communications equipment and technology used. Large-scale events, such as professional sporting events, present a unique set of challenges and require extra precautions. This is especially true for events like marathons and bicycle races—sometimes attended by hundreds of thousands of people and spread out over many miles of expansive terrain. A prime example is the 26-mile route of the Boston Marathon, or the 118-mile IRONMAN endurance course in Texas.

What happens when interoperability challenges or geographical obstacles prevent EMS providers, law enforcement officers, and other public safety personnel from communicating with one another? What if a breakdown of communications were to happen in the midst of an emergency? These are two questions public safety agencies face and must plan for during large-scale events because the failure of communication between agencies and emergency personnel can result in mass chaos, injury and, in some cases, death.

EMS and other public safety workers are tasked with maintaining a safe environment throughout the entire footprint of these events, even when the area involved is dauntingly large. With public safety personnel spread thin and far outnumbered by participants and spectators, the need for interoperability, exceptional technology and resources to mitigate risk is high. Interoperability among public safety agencies implies that each department’s radio system works on the same frequencies or linkage paths as partnering agencies to enable seamless communication. It’s critical public safety agencies maintain a coordinated effort to ensure order and minimize confusion in the event of any incident.

BROADBAND TECHNOLOGY

Long-term evolution (LTE) broadband technology can reduce interoperability issues associated with public safety communications. The relatively new-to-the-scene combination of public safety-grade LTE and standard push-to-talk (PTT) land mobile radio (LMR) communications is now helping command officers at large events stay connected to their teams regardless of location, geography or device.

From portable radios to smartphones to tablets, many agencies have adopted this new connectivity technology that not only enables them to communicate securely but can also be used to locate and track public safety workers and resources spread out over a large area. With mapping capabilities, device tracking and other “situational awareness” information at their fingertips, command officers, responders and personnel at command and communications centers can track and coordinate individuals and assets as needed.

Let’s look at two large-scale events—the world’s longest running annual marathon and an event testing the extreme fitness and endurance of participants from around the country—where public safety agencies used new and innovative technologies to effectively communicate and coordinate with one another.

2014 BOSTON MARATHON

Due to heightened security and awareness following the tragic event that occurred at the 2013 Boston Marathon, public safety workers from the starting line in Hopkinton, Mass., to the finish line on Boylston Street in Boston were prepared for anything and everything, taking the necessary steps to provide a safe and secure environment for the multitude of runners and spectators in attendance.

A critical part of that preparation was ensuring each and every public safety team member had access to reliable group communications technology. Not only was the city on high alert, but the entire country had their eyes on the city of Boston, concerned about the safety of participants and spectators, as well as nearby residents and professionals throughout the Boston metro and downtown area.

The Boston Marathon sprawls 26.2 miles across eight Massachusetts cities and towns: Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, Brookline and Boston. The annual event requires a joint effort across all of these neighboring town lines, and must encompass police officers, firefighters, EMS personnel, federal agencies and others linked together by a system that allows them to communicate effectively and efficiently with each other.

The Brookline Police Department played a key role in helping Boston and neighboring cities prepare for the 2014 Boston Marathon and adopted a new technology that gave agencies a communication solution they’d never used before.

Instead of using traditional PTT portable radios that only work within a dedicated wireless network channel, Brookline officers used BeOn—a mobile application downloaded to any standard, off-the-shelf smartphone—to securely communicate over their department’s frequency using any available network connection (e.g., LTE, Wi-Fi, etc.).

With this technology, commanders, dispatchers and officers not only had uninterrupted, clear communications, but could also monitor each assigned team’s position through the app’s geomapping function. In addition, the app enabled plain-clothed undercover officers to discretely communicate using an everyday smartphone over a P25 public safety radio system provided by Harris Corporation instead of having to use a rugged, heavy-duty walkie-talkie that would easily identify them as police officers.

As expected, the comfort of having a seamless communications system at the touch of a smartphone screen allowed for officers to monitor and patrol the marathon course with ease. And because it was compatible with any mobile device, the app proved to be a tremendous tool for all responders linked together on this innovative system. Responders in Brookline and other participating agencies found the BeOn app to be highly successful because of its effectiveness throughout preparedness, training and actual use during the event.

In the future, event organizers and Brookline officials envision having mobile applications like BeOn serve as a valuable addition to the communications toolkits of command staff, supervisors, and on-duty emergency and public safety personnel. With widespread future adoption, it’s envisioned that emergency personnel can potentially leverage their smartphones to communicate securely with widely used P25 public safety radio systems at other similar large-scale events to greatly bolster communication and coordination efforts.

IRONMAN TEXAS NORTH AMERICAN CHAMPIONSHIP

The Montgomery County Hospital District (MCHD) in Texas prepared for the IRONMAN Texas North American Championship, a triathlon race throughout a 44 square-mile area dubbed “the woodlands” and located 28 miles north of Houston. MCHD public safety personnel were tasked with supporting the massive event that spans both land and sea. IRONMAN participants swim 2.4 miles in Lake Woodlands, bike 112 miles and then run a full 26.2-mile marathon.

In order to patrol the hundreds of miles of diverse terrain, responders relied on always-on, in-range communications to keep participants safe and allocate resources appropriately. EMS units patrolled the area on bikes and ATVs, as opposed to regular response vehicles, enabling them to quickly and efficiently find and attend to injured participants anywhere along the course.

Using the BeOn mobile app, each of the seven EMS units continuously transmitted and received mapping information through their smartphones, which then integrated their locations with a command center using a Harris Symphony dispatch console. Before this type of technology, the team was dispersed throughout the course using traditional radios, and the command center would try to direct the team as best they could to the patient in need.

The BeOn mobile app allowed each of the seven MCHD EMS units covering the 2014 IRONMAN triathlon to continuously transmit and receive mapping information

The BeOn mobile app allowed each of the seven MCHD EMS units covering the 2014 IRONMAN triathlon to continuously transmit and receive mapping information through their smartphones, which then integrated their locations with a command center.

The app allowed dispatchers to immediately locate the nearest medic whenever an injury was reported. Not only did the platform help facilitate quick and efficient patient care—40 transports in total—it also helped ensure evenly-dispersed coverage over the entire area, preventing units from clustering in any one section of the course.

According to some of the EMS providers on ATVs, the mapping and location capabilities on their smartphones were an extremely useful tool because it gave them a map directly to the location of an injured participant along the course.

CONCLUSION

To overcome the unique challenges of large-scale events, including interoperability, unpredictable crowds and large geographical areas, first responders and commanders alike benefit from innovation in communications technologies.

New technologies and advances in the LTE network will help public safety workers address these challenges and improve how EMS, police and fire departments secure and protect events.

Members of the Brookline Police Department see future technologies expanding to allow users to take crime scene photos or collect video statements that can be immediately shared throughout the emergency network.

EMS personnel from MCHD agree that new technologies, like the mapping capabilities on smartphones, are the next wave of gamechangers for the public safety industry, realizing the many advantages of using smartphones instead of full-size radios at large-scale events.

If your agency is asked to participate in large-scale events, don’t settle for traditional means of communication when there are major technological advances happening all the time. Leverage new technologies and forward-thinking solutions to improve your team’s communications strategy and enhance their ability to do their jobs effectively and efficiently.