Connectivity in the field: the next revolution in emergency services digitisation

Cradlepoint Australia Pty Ltd

Thursday, 01 July, 2021


Connectivity in the field: the next revolution in emergency services digitisation

The past…. emergency services and critical communications in Australia in 2020

The last year has been testing for emergency services in Australia. From the devastating bushfires of summer 2019/20 to the COVID pandemic, whole communities and services that support them have had to rethink how they operate.

Whether needing to rapidly spin up pop-up networks to support remote workforces or drive-through COVID testing clinics or providing connectivity for communities being evacuated from their regional towns due to natural disasters, the challenges of 2020 have revealed how much emergency services rely on robust, stable and secure access to mission-critical information.

In May this year, the Victorian State Government announced that more than $133 million will be used to upgrade the digital radio service for Forest Fire Management Victoria staff and other emergency response personnel. According to the government, this will mean personnel can avoid radio black spots and communicate better with other first responders, including Country Fire Authority volunteers, when fighting fires and responding to remote emergencies.

While this is a welcome boost for firefighting departments, it only addresses one small part of the connectivity shortcomings that need to be upgraded. Cellular connectivity that enables data transfer from connected vehicles, technologies, and the field forces, including license plate readers, body and dash cameras, physician-assisted remote diagnosis, robots and drones, telemetry via sensors on tools and live video visuals from personnel, will be the next revolutionary change to ensure that emergency services can operate from virtually anywhere as efficiently and safely as possible.

In January 2021, Cradlepoint published a North America-based research survey conducted with Police, Emergency Medical Services (EMS), Fire & Rescue, and local government agencies to better grasp the state of emergency services critical communications and key drivers impacting the rate of digital innovation. While this was a North America focused study, the findings are relevant learnings for emergency services in Australia.

In the research report, titled Trend Report: The Value of Cellular Broadband for Mission-Critical Communication (Jan 2021) the responses showed how organisations today are leveraging connected technologies and adopting LTE cellular solutions to address the need for reliable, fast and secure connectivity that is rapidly deployed, and easy to manage — ultimately helping emergency response personnel do their jobs better.

The present…. what are the critical communications needs of emergency services in 2021?

Cradlepoint’s research found that only 12 per cent of use cases for LTE in Police, Fire, and Emergency Medical or Ambulance Services are being used for remote workers.

With first responders, a fast response time is critical to saving lives, preventing a fire from raging out of control, or delivering emergency medical assistance. Any interruption in connectivity that delays critical information from getting where it is needed can put first responders, the public, and property at risk.

Therefore, not surprisingly, when asked what their concerns are in using LTE-enabled router technology for critical connectivity, reliability was the top factor. Security was the second-most cited concern (61%).

While consumer-grade USB modems are inexpensive and easy to deploy, cutting corners comes at a cost. For agencies using consumer-grade USB modems, a majority reported occasional or repeated drops, with only 3.2% reporting always-reliable connectivity. Once an agency deploys fleet or field force LTE connectivity, they have dramatically expanded the threat “attack surface” for anyone trying to breach a city or state network. So a strong network security capability is table stakes for any organisation. Additionally, consumer-grade USB modems can often only connect to a few devices, which is usually insufficient for the multitude of devices that vehicle and field-deployed public servants typically use. Add to the fact that these modems don’t deliver centralised management across an entire fleet of vehicles or dispersed personnel and they don’t support a path to new game-changing technologies that require 5G connectivity. Consumer grade-modems simply don’t deliver the reliability, security, centralised management, and the flexibility to keep up with technology connectivity and security needs necessary to support critical infrastructure today and tomorrow.

Reliability

The common denominator across emergency services is the need for in-vehicle connectivity. Police vehicles, ambulances, fire engines, and even parking inspector vehicles have become a major hub for communication between responders and dispatch as well as on-scene workflow. Responders, and the connected technology they rely on, need to be able to send and receive critical information on the go. A reliable connection to computer-aided dispatch (CAD), records management systems, and other back-office applications, is essential.

Cradlepoint’s research survey results revealed a gap between the need for critical, always-on connectivity and agencies’ ability to achieve such connections.

Forty-seven per cent of respondents reported often or always-on connectivity, 53% reported losing critical connectivity or having poor network connections in the past three months. Respondents indicated that 72% do not use dual cellular carrier solutions which provide redundant capability for improved reliability.

A rugged, enterprise-grade mobile router with built-in LTE connectivity and dual carrier capabilities offers the best solution for reliable mobile connectivity. Agencies can add up to four carriers for redundancy for seamless failover capabilities with any two carriers active at any point in time and in jurisdictions which have overlap carrier service areas or have spotty connections due to terrain or infrastructure. This enables seamless failover throughout the service area. However, to make multiple carriers manageable, the router software needs to be intelligent about what network traffic to pass to what carrier or wireless network, and when to do so. For example, uploading non-urgent video recordings might wait until the vehicle comes back to the garage at night and use the garage Wi-Fi network to upload. In Cradlepoint’s research*, over 63% of agencies using routers with LTE that also relied on multiple carriers to provide a backup network connection reported their connectivity was often or always reliable.

Security

Second to reliability, security is one of the top evaluation criteria for agencies when making a technology investment. The concern is warranted. It’s absolutely essential that emergency services personnel have access to the information they need to do their jobs, like criminal activity information for an individual being questioned by police or health records of an individual being treated by paramedics at the scene of an accident. Agencies also have the legal obligation under privacy laws to protect confidential information from being manipulated or falling into the wrong hands. Inexpensive hotspot solutions lack the enterprise-class security, such as micro-segmenting firewalls, IPS/IDS threat detection and centralised security dashboard, discover, block, and notify management of threats on the fly.

Unfortunately, the increased move to online operations during COVID has given way to a global rise in cyberattacks in the healthcare space, including cyber incidents and ransomware attacks which caused significant disruption at hospitals in Queensland and Victoria earlier this year, cutting off access to patient data and forcing facilities to go offline and revert to “manual systems”. The attack surface is even more widespread for mobile deployments. Each vehicle and field personnel with multiple devices increases the attack vector significantly over traditional, site-based enterprises. This is no time to skimp on security capabilities at the vehicle and field force edge.

As more and more devices are added to an agency’s network, the potential for cyberattack increases. It is critical for emergency services agencies to be able to detect and isolate threats and manage their connected devices, disrupting cybercriminals efforts to access emergency services or government networks to compromise systems or corrupt, delete, or hold critical data hostage.

Cradlepoint enterprise-class routers deliver a unified edge security capability to support security architectures that can keep up with cybercriminal activities including:

  • map specific network traffic to specific interfaces (e.g. wi-fi) or carriers to ensure segregation.
  • application-intelligent IPS/IDS capabilities that detect internet-bound threats, blocks them, and notifies management of the potential intrusion.
  • zone-based firewall to enable micro-segmentation of LAN to WAN and WAN to LAN traffic to prevent potentially unsecure traffic from being passed to secure networks.
  • ability to communicate to private data centres and the cloud using a private network and encrypted paths.
Cloud-based management

With many vehicles not only constantly on the move, but also spread across wide geographies, it’s simply not feasible for IT and fleet management to always visit vehicles in-person to manage connection problems, configuration changes, security updates, and other issues.

This creates two major problems. First, poorly timed software or configuration updates in an emergency services setting result in widespread disruption to emergency personnel and can impact the speed and quality of service that civilians receive. Second, and perhaps more concerning, is the fact that this limits the capacity for IT teams to resolve potential cybersecurity vulnerabilities, configuration issues, and software updates remotely while the vehicle is in the field.

The solution lies in using the power of the cloud to remotely manage wireless edge networks and gain full visibility over entire fleets via a single-pane-of-glass interface. The centralised, remote management capability of cloud-based wireless networking routers also enables head office IT teams complete control of the mobile network spread across vehicles and field forces. This includes the ability to assess carrier data consumption and WAN uptime, schedule updates for off hours, access vehicle location in real-time and cellular coverage along the routes, real-time and historic security profile, and the analytics needed to enable always-on connectivity and the most efficient emergency service response in times of need.

The future…. making the investment now

Technology that can help emergency services agencies secure and access data has grown in sophistication. There has been an expanding variety of emergency services applications of cellular connectivity in the field like fire vehicle telemetry that measures the volume of water a particular fire engine holds, and sensors on hoses that measure the volume of water passing through the hose over time, therefore enabling planning ahead and continuous effort where it’s needed. Another example is the use of CCTV cameras and live video streaming from the front lines of natural disasters, enabling emergency services to assess how to ensure safety for personnel and what resources may be required at a particular site or incident. In the police environment, bodycams and holster sensors help protect officers as well as citizens. Emergency services organisations investing in connected technology need to think long-term. Is the technology flexible enough to support the evolving applications that will help emergency services work faster and more effectively? What all connected technology solutions have in common is the need for always-on, secure and enterprise-class LTE and 5G network connectivity.

This might seem like a luxury with budgets overextended and already-stretched staffing numbers, but the need for wireless networking technology has never been more apparent. Cradlepoint’s survey results showed that emergency services agencies have at least nine connected technologies that are regularly used to transmit information in the field. Reliable connectivity is essential for emergency services agencies. Without a reliable and secure LTE and 5G network, the ROI associated with connected technologies will never be realised and at the same time, the government needs to address the lack of reliable and secure connectivity in the field.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/mabofoto@icloud.com

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