Public safety communications interoperability

By M. Webb (EMBC)

Communications Interoperability refers to the ability of public safety agencies to talk across disciplines and jurisdictions via communications systems, exchanging voice and/or data with one another on demand, in real time, when needed, and as authorized.

In Canada and other countries, significant gaps exist in the capabilities of public safety personnel of all disciplines to communicate effectively, across services and jurisdictions during many emergency events.  On January 26th, 2011, the Ministers Responsible for Emergency Management approved the Communications Interoperability Strategy for Canada[1] and its associated Action Plan in order to address this challenge.

The CISC is the result of three years of work, beginning with the drafting of the Canadian Communications Interoperability Plan (CCIP) in 2008 by a working group of provincial officials and emergency response agencies at all levels of government.  The CISC provides a high level roadmap and national governance framework for improving the interoperability of all types of public safety communications in Canada.

The CISC identifies five strategic objectives to guide development of interoperability policies, programs and investments by all levels of government:

  1. Governance: Establish a governance structure and coordination framework that respects jurisdictional authorities and is empowered, resourced, representative and accountable;
  2. Standard Operating Procedures: Promote the development of integrated Standard Operating Procedures for communications;
  3. Technology: Promote and support the development of national emergency communications systems based on common user requirements, open standards and a system-of-systems approach;
  4. Training and Exercises: Enable and support comprehensive and integrated training and exercises for interoperable communications; and
  5. Usage: Promote development and daily use of common processes, principles and tools by all emergency personnel.

These objectives are aligned to the Canadian Communications Interoperability Continuum within the CISC, which is based on the SAFECOM Interoperability Continuum developed by DHS in the US[2].

A specific objective within the CISC Action Plan is the establishment by all provinces and territories of “Interoperability Coordinators” to oversee their Interoperability initiatives, including ongoing participation in the national F/P/T Interoperability Working Group being established.

To date, several provinces, including British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia have appointed Interoperability Coordinators.  In BC’s case, this office will continue work on a variety of initiatives related to improving communications interoperability, including:

  • Harmonization of shared voice radio channels across the province;
  • Development of interoperable data systems to improve shared situational awareness;
  • Establishment of regional and local governance structures; and
  • Strategic planning for future emergency communications capabilities in the province and across Canada.

One such strategic initiative involves working collaboratively at the F/P/T level with all stakeholders to coordinate responses to a recent consultation paper[3] issued by Industry Canada related to 700 MHz broadband spectrum.  This consultation will directly impact public safety and public service agencies’ ability to utilize mission critical multimedia (video, data, image, and mapping) services to support emergency response operations well into the future.

Today, many public safety entities use commercial networks for their mobile data needs.  However, commercial networks have significant limitations when used to support mission-critical applications.  Public safety needs to secure 20 MHz of dedicated 700 MHz broadband spectrum to minimize the risk of endangering responders and citizens due to failures in commercial networks, including network congestion in times of crisis and network outages due to infrastructure impacts in catastrophic events.

The leaders of police, fire and EMS agencies across the country are joining together to develop a common position and response to Industry Canada on the issue.  The CACP, the CAFC and EMSCC[4] have created the “Tri-Services Special Purpose Committee on 700 MHz Broadband for Mission Critical Public Safety Data” and are working with trusted partners, including F/P/T jurisdictions, to gain a better understanding of the issue, raise awareness, inform stakeholders and identify needs and potential opportunities.

Public safety across Canada is actively collaborating to ensure its voice is heard, as there are competing commercial interests. The 20 MHz of broadband spectrum required by public safety is an extremely valuable natural resource.  The 700 MHz consultation process is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for allocation of spectrum to public safety that can greatly enhance community and responder safety, innovation and the health of Canada’s digital economy.

In the US, a similar digital TV transition was accomplished on June 12, 2009. The US spectrum regulator, the FCC, has already dedicated 10 MHz to public safety and the White House has recently signalled it intends to allocate a second 10 MHz block to public safety, rather than auction the spectrum for commercial use.  Public safety in Canada is strongly urging Industry Canada to follow the US lead and harmonize the spectrum allocation.

All emergency management and public safety stakeholders in Canada are strongly encouraged to get involved in the 700 MHz spectrum campaign.  A good place to start is the website site established by the Special Purpose Committee – www.action700.ca – where a variety of resources on the issue can be found.

[1] http://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/prg/em/cisc-eng.aspx .

[2] http://www.safecomprogram.gov/SAFECOM/ interoperability/default.htm

[3] http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/smt-gst.nsf/eng/sf09947.html

[4] CACP – Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, CAFC – Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, EMSCC – Emergency Medical Services Chiefs of Canada.