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The roadmap for public safety communications

Many emergency responders in Canada, including members of the Canadian Forces, continue to have significant challenges to talk to each other via radio on a daily basis. This fact has been readily apparent in a number of recent disasters ranging from the terrible floods in Alberta to the massive tragedy in Lac Mégantic, Quebec.

However, the future looks far brighter with a wide range of regional, national and bi-national public safety interoperability efforts now underway, including a new Public Safety Wireless Broadband Network leveraging 700 MHz LTE, and work on Canada–United States Cross Border Interoperability. Spearheading many of these initiatives is the Canadian Communications Interoperability Communications Interest Group, or CITIG.

Public safety network
On March 14, 2012, the Minister of Industry announced that the government of Canada was allocating 10 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band for public safety use. This was hailed as great news by the Canadian Associations of Chiefs of Fire, Paramedics and Police. However, the 10 MHz allocation fell short of Canadian responders’ call for 20 MHz of the valuable spectrum. While a decision is still pending on a second 10 MHz of broadband spectrum, responders and government officials have been toiling away for the past two years on creating governance models, operational use cases and defining technical requirements.

The effort is being coordinated by the Interoperability Development Office at Public Safety Canada, the Senior Officials Responsible for Emergency Management (SOREM) from all provinces and territories, in partnership with the Tri-Service Chiefs, CITIG, Federation of Canadian Municipalities and a wide range of stakeholders working behind the scenes as part of the 700 MHz Project Management Team. Reporting to the SOREM Interoperability Working Group and under the auspices of the Communications Interoperability Strategy for Canada (CISC), many are calling this work the “largest public safety information and communications technology project in Canadian history.”

While national in nature, delivery will be led, managed and funded at the provincial/territorial and local levels. As a result, these jurisdictions are now working on developing their own governance and business models. Many, if not all, will require strong partnerships with industry and a long-term vision and execution strategy.

In terms of identifying and raising awareness about the 700 MHz issue, CITIG has been leading the charge in Canada. Created in 2007 and now led by the CACP, CAFC and EMSCC, CITIG’s mission is “to improve Canadian public safety interoperability at home and abroad through collaborative efforts, innovation and leadership.”

The 1,600-plus volunteer associates from across Canada, the U.S. and the world are primarily from first responder agencies, but also include all levels of government, non-governmental organizations, associations, academia and industry. All share a common interest in enhancing public safety communications interoperability in Canada and internationally.

Remote wireless broadband
While much of the planning effort on 700 MHz has been focused on the needs of urban and suburban requirements, CITIG has strong ties with the North and Arctic and is always thinking about how to bring modern communications to those areas of Canada. Of course, this also ties directly to Canada’s Arctic Strategy and the good work previously completed in the Arctic Communications Infrastructure Assessment Report (www.aciareport.ca).

With this in mind, CITIG has asked a number of research groups, including both the Centre for Security Science and Communications Research Centre, to explore the possibility of creating “700 MHz LTE in a box.” The vision is that when a search and rescue technician is responding to a call for assistance from one of Canada’s three Joint Rescue Coordination Centres they will be able to parachute into the scene and, in short order, put a 700 MHz wireless “bubble” around the incident. Cruise ships seeking permission to travel in the Arctic could be mandated to bring one of these “boxes” with them in case of an accident, oil spill, etc. With this bubble in place, the wireless device they use on a daily basis in the South would continue to work in the Arctic.

A great deal more research is needed, but universities such as Simon Fraser and the University of Regina’s new Canadian Centre for Public Safety and First Responders are already working on this challenge. CITIG is extremely proud to have relationships with the aforementioned, and many more, universities and research groups, both in Canada and internationally.

Canada–U.S. interoperability
There has been a great deal of media coverage about Prime Minister Harper and President Obama signing the Canada–U.S. “Beyond the Border Initiative.” However, the fact of the matter is that interoperability along the border is first and foremost a local issue. Firefighters from both sides of the border support each other via mutual aid agreements that have been in place for decades. This was never as apparent as during the recent tragedy in Lac Mégantic, where numerous volunteer fire fighters from the U.S. answered the call for assistance and spent days supporting their Canadian partners.

Paramedics in both countries cross the border daily to provide quality emergency medical services to citizens they serve. Law enforcement officers work collaboratively with each other across an imaginary line on a map to fight crime and respond to calls for assistance. From Alaska and Yukon to the Maine and New Brunswick border, responders work together and struggle for interoperable communications every day.

With this in mind, and supported by a $100,000 grant from the Motorola Solutions Foundation, CITIG launched a major Cross Border project in 2012 that is already reaping benefits. The CITIG Cross Border Workshop Program has two facets. First, additional programming was added to the Sixth Canadian Public Safety Interoperability Workshop held in Toronto in December 2012. At the same time, ten responders, five from the U.S. and five from Canada, received funding to attend this internationally recognized workshop to both participate and help lead cross-border interoperability discussions.

The second aspect of the project saw six Regional Cross Border Workshops held throughout 2013 to communicate the work done at the Canada-U.S. level and help each region develop its own regional strategy and action plan. These workshops, all free to attend, took place in Lethbridge, Sarnia, Saint-Jean-sur-Richeleau (not far from Lac Mégantic and attended by a number of the responders at the tragedy), St. Andrews, Abbotsford and Whitehorse. Overall, participants in these one-day workshops focused on a wide range of issues including planning, operations and policy recommendations.

In June, both CITIG and its sister organization in the U.S., the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC), were invited to participate in the Canada–U.S. Cross Border Interoperability Working Group meetings held at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. This working group, part of the Beyond the Border Program and, from the Canadian side, supporting the Cross Border Action Plan within the CISC, had been primarily focusing on “fed to fed” related issues such as secure borders, etc. The working group is co-chaired by Public Safety Canada and the Department of Homeland Security. A number of federal departments also attended including Industry Canada and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Both NPSTC and CITIG, with evidence recently gathered during their cross-border workshops, cited multiple long standing barriers to cross-border information sharing. Those included various antiquated spectrum management policies and regulations, lack of understanding of how local responders cross the border daily to support operations or to transport patients to facilities in the other country, and incompatible frequencies.

The road ahead
The Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group was first launched in 2007 to a blank slate with very little public safety interoperability activity in Canada. The efforts at that time were based locally with a small number of champions working in silos.

Just six years later, Canada has a national strategy, provincial, territorial and local interoperability plans, a roadmap to develop a national public safety wireless broadband network of networks, improved cross border interoperability efforts and a myriad of champions from all levels of government, responders, emergency management, utilities, academia and industry all “singing from the same song sheet.”

While there are miles to go before we sleep, the future looks bright indeed.
Inspector (Ret.) Lance Valcour retired from the Ottawa Police Service in 2010 after 33 years of service. He now works for the Canadian Associations of Chiefs of Police, Fire and Emergency Medical Services as the executive director of the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group (CITIG).
Want to learn more?
CITIG is either leading or supporting the following four events on public safety interoperability:

• CITIG’s Seventh Canadian Public Safety Interoperability Workshop, November 24-27, Vancouver (www.citig.ca)
• Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance’s First Responder Vendor Outreach Forum, October 8-9, Toronto (www.cata.ca/Media_and_Events/FR_VOF/toronto2013/)
• Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries’ SecureTech, October 29-30, Ottawa (www.securetechcanada.ca)
• Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police’s Information and Communications Technology Workshop, February 23-26, Vancouver (www.cacp.ca)

Author: Lance Valcour (from Aug/Sep 2013)

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