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Public safety broadband spectrum

These days when we refer to broadband we are normally talking about Internet access. However in practice the term refers to the bandwidth available for data transfer. This relates not only to wired communications but also to the frequency ranges used in microwave and radio transmissions. One of the considerations for today’s emergency services is the allocation and use of the available frequencies to maximise the effectiveness of their communications. In this article Harlin McEwen looks at how the issue is being approached in the USA.

The term ‘public safety’ in the United States refers primarily to what are known as the first responders – police, firefighters and emergency medical services personnel. Their primary mission is to save lives and protect property. Every citizen benefits from this activity. Increasingly, public safety entities depend on effective wireless communications designed to meet their specific operational needs. Mission-critical wireless communications provide the capability for public safety users to have superior information at the point of decision. As the amount of information and the speed with which it is needed significantly increases, so does the radio spectrum required to deliver that information. This article addresses these issues from a public safety community perspective. It focuses in particular on the need for dedicated broadband public safety spectrum. This spectrum would provide a path for increasing access to data and images that will allow first responders to serve the public even more efficiently and effectively than today. Such broadband communications will supplement current wide-area voice and moderate speed data communications.

Superior information at the point of decision

In the United States there are two-and- a-half million public safety first responders, who reside in state or local government agencies. Almost 750,000 law enforcement officers are employed by over 15,000 law enforcement agencies. In addition, there are almost 30,000 fire departments and over 6000 emergency medical service (EMS) departments that include almost a million firefighters and well over three-quarters of a million EMS personnel.

The amount of information needed today by these first responders to investigate crime, fight fires and provide medical attention has increased significantly. Public safety entities have a vast array of ‘tools’, including databases of criminal case reports, fingerprints, mug shots, building plans, hazardous materials information, subway and train routing maps and medical information, to name a few.

However, while these informational tools are available in the police station, firehouse or hospital, it is relatively rare today to have the spectrum resources needed to get that information into the field where the point of decision often occurs. This is a limitation that must be addressed by policymakers and spectrum managers in each country where the protection of life and property is a priority.

As depicted in Figure 1, spectrum can be seen as a pipe through which information is passed. The more information that must be passed through the pipe, the larger the pipe must be – especially if the information must be passed along instantaneously, as is routinely the case with mission-critical communications.

In anticipation of its emerging communications requirements, the public safety community in the United States released a report on September 11, 1996, which documented spectrum requirements until the year 2010.1 At the time this report was written, state and local public safety spectrum allocations totalled approximately 23 MHz. Similarly, spectrum for related federal operations totalled approximately 24 MHz. The committee of public safety experts determined that an additional 97.5 MHz of spectrum would be required to satisfy the voice, data and video communications needs of the public safety community.

The public safety community further documented the need specifically for dedicated public safety broadband spectrum in subsequent responses to the FCC. This information was collected in 2001 during a US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proceeding to determine how 50 MHz of spectrum in the 4.9 GHz band would be used.

Public safety representatives addressed a number of applications for this broadband spectrum. This spectrum could support hands-free enhancements for first responders, communications at an incident scene and uploads or downloads of information at certain fixed locations.

For police officers and special weapons and tactical (SWAT) responders, personal area and vehicular area networks would provide hands-free operation by eliminating the wires between peripheral devices and radios. Devices such as microphones, headsets, small data terminals and helmet-mounted video cameras could be connected to a transceiver on the belt without wires. Firefighters and SWAT officers could also use such applications to integrate lifesaving tools such as biometric and environmental sensors, video and thermal imaging cameras, wireless voice-recognition microphones and earpieces into the firefighter’s or officer’s suit and helmet.

A wireless on-scene/incident command network could provide high-capacity real-time multimedia communications for personnel and operations at the immediate incident scene. These networks could be used to provide the on-scene commander with additional information concerning the situation and status of his or her personnel. Incident command centres could use full motion video for remote controlled robotics in terrorist situations, bomb disposals and hazardous material incidents. Police officers or suspects in high-risk situations could be monitored to permit on-scene decisions and assistance based on the video being transmitted. With sufficient spectrum, low-flying helicopters could send aerial video of a scene to ground commanders.

Large data and image files could be uploaded or downloaded almost instantaneously as police, fire and emergency medical vehicles leave the station or pass certain designated fixed broadband ‘hot spot’ communications points. This would help bring the vast amount of information available today in the police station, firehouse or hospital directly to first responders in the field. Any file, video clip, image or even a software upgrade could be downloaded to or uploaded from a police, fire, EMS, SWAT or other public safety vehicle mobile computer or data terminal as they passed by these hot spots.

Broadband public safety spectrum in the United States

In February 2002, the US FCC decided to designate 50 MHz of spectrum at 4.94–4.99 GHz for public safety broadband use.2 This action establishes the foundation for development and deployment of broadband communications tools that meet the public safety community’s specific requirements.

One of the factors considered in dedicating this specific band of spectrum was the economies of scale that could be realised by leveraging broadband technology development in nearby consumer bands. While elements of the basic technology can be leveraged, public safety agencies need superior reliability and security. Therefore, dedicated spectrum and security features designed for public safety needs are a key requirement.

The role for engineers

There is a significant role for engineers to assist in developing new public safety broadband communications. First of all, engineers need to understand public safety’s mission-critical communications requirements. Just because a technology works well for the general public does not mean it is appropriate for public safety. While first responders use commercial systems for certain administrative and less critical communications, we rely on systems designed for and dedicated to public safety communications for mission-critical requirements. Our experience is that systems must be optimised for public safety’s unique needs. These include specialised requirements in the areas of control, coverage, capacity, capability and cost. Engineers who strive to design solutions for public safety must first understand these requirements.

Before any systems can be designed, the spectrum to support them must be defined and dedicated. Among all the competing users for spectrum, there should be virtually no higher priority than protecting life and property. Engineers engaged in spectrum management and policy can play a huge role in determining whether or not a country adequately supports its public safety first responders with sufficient spectrum to meet this priority need.


The terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11 2001 offered a grim reminder of the importance of public safety first responders. Exactly five years after release of the PSWAC report on spectrum requirements,1 these catastrophic events underscored the importance of first responders and of communications to support them. While terrorist attacks or natural disasters heighten public awareness of the benefits of mission-critical communications, public safety agencies need to be able to communicate every day, not just during extraordinary situations.

The US is not unique in the need to dedicate broadband spectrum for public safety. Each country has the opportunity to support its own public safety agencies with the spectrum needed to provide superior information at the point of decision. The broadband applications described in this article could be the tools that help police, firefighters or emergency medical personnel respond to your life-threatening situation.


1Final Report, Public S afety Wireless Advisory Committee, September 1996. The committee of public safety experts was jointly sponsored by The US National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the US Federal Communications Commission.

2 Federal Communications Commission Second Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, WT Docket No. 00–32, released February 27, 2002.

Harlin R. McEwen
Chairman of the Communications and Technology Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police

Harlin McEwen is Chairman of the Communications and Technology Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and also serves as Communications Advisor to the Major Cities Police Chiefs Association, the Major County Sheriffs’ Association and the National Sheriffs’ Association in the United States. Mr McEwen has been involved in law enforcement for over 44 years and previously held posts as the Deputy Assistant Director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as Deputy Commissioner of the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, and as Chief of Police of the City of Ithaca, New York. Chief McEwen participated in a panel presentation at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London on 26 September 2002.

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