Six emerging and future public safety technologies

5G Top Stories

The landscape for public safety technology is changing almost every day, both in terms of major regulatory changes and technology advances that impact public safety, and in new product announcements.

So where is it all headed? Here are three new and three emerging technology advances that will shape public safety in the near future, as well as public safety and tech experts’ expectations on what will come into play over the longer term.


Mission-critical push-to-talk. The long-awaited implementation of 3GPP’s standards-based MCPTT has finally arrived. At the end of March, AT&T officially launched standards-based Mission-Critical Push-to-Talk service on its network, in what the carrier says is a global first. Scott Agnew, assistant VP for product with AT&T-FirstNet, said that implementing MCPTT on a network that offers priority and preemption for identified public safety users, means that the packets are handled with the absolute highest priority in order to get low latency. “It is a network feature instead of an application that is only as strong as its weakest link,” he said.

The Galaxy XCover FieldPro supported MCPTT at launch, and the service costs $10 per month for public safety users. Land Mobile Radio-based voice is expected to stick around for years, but the launch of MCPTT signals that when the cellular networks are robust enough to satisfy public safety, they have something to transition to.

Vertical (z-axis) location for 911 callers and public safety personnel. In mid-July, the Federal Communications Commission moved forward with rules around requiring wireless network operators to provide public safety answering points (PSAPs) with the vertical location of 911 callers, to within a range of plus or minus three meters to the handset. The FCC has deadlines of April 2021 and April 2023 for nationwide wireless network operators to provide z-axis information for 80% of indoor wireless 911 calls in the top 25 markets and top 50 markets, respectively. In addition, the FCC added a new requirement that national operations have z-axis technology available in all Cellular Market Areas by April 2025. Non-nationwide carriers were given an additional year, until April 2026, to make such information available in their service areas.

NextNav, one of the solutions providers which has been working to build out a network that will provide this information based on sensors in existing handsets (with a software update), plans a phased nationwide launch of its services this year and has already partnered with public safety device specialist Sonim to integrate the capability into Sonim’s devices – so public safety users can be better tracked in-building as well. Ganesh Pattabiraman, CEO of NextNav, said recently that studies have shown that have accurate vertical location information reduces search-times in multi-story buildings by more than 80%.

NextGeneration 911 systems. Modernizing 911 systems has been in the works for years, so that PSAPs will be able to accept new types of incoming information from callers in need of help and citizens reporting disturbances. New forms of incoming voice calls were the first areas of focus (such as VoIP), but that has since shifted toward working on interoperability between systems, and additional features are beginning to be deployed as well. Text-to-911 capabilities are in the process of being implemented now, but the ability to accept multimedia in the form of pictures or video — in real-time or after the fact —  is being worked out as well. There are some tricks to texting 911, though. People need to fully text their messages, without using emojis or slang abbreviations that may not translate to dispatchers. The FCC maintains a list of PSAPs which have Text-to-911 capabilities, and every month it updates that list: as of the most recent update in June, nearly 300 PSAPs around the country were added. Elko County, Nevada – the sixth largest county in the country, at 17,000 square miles – announced recently moved to a cloud-based NG911 system in May, which also integrates location data with 911 calls and pins the caller’s location visually to a map for dispatchers; it claims this is a first-of-its-kind NG911 implementation, with text-to-911 expected to be deployed within six months.

In addition to those three emerging technologies, the following are expected to shape future public safety response:

Purpose-built devices and interfaces. Right now, public safety users mostly rely on consumer devices (smartphones, tablets, laptops and so on) and adapt them for use. There are a few exceptions of specific ruggedized devices – but there should be more purpose-built options that are designed especially for use by public in the smoky, light-limited, close-quarters, wet or dirty places that first responders often find themselves, argues Dereck Orr, division chief of the Public Safety Communications Research Division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Why should public safety users – who often have to wear bulky gloves, or surgical gloves – be pinching and swiping on their screens, instead of a user interface that better enables them to do their work? PSCR is spearheading research investment and technical challenges focused on advancing that aspect of public safety communications, and many more.

Verizon has gone so far to have dedicate one of its 5G test labs entirely to development of 5G devices, applications and use cases for public safety. The 5G First Responder Lab in Washington, D.C. has thus far graduated three cohorts of companies and recently put together a fourth cohort which is focused on potential EMS use of 5G. That bundle of services in the works includes the use of smart glasses from Vuzix that will be able to relay equipment locations, treatment options and “overlay patient medical history, medications or alerts,” according to Vuzix. Nick Nilan, director of product development for the public sector at Verizon, says that the combination of virtual and hands-on work and the ability to work with Verizon’s experts over an actual 5G network lends itself to thinking differently about potential solutions, while companies who seek to provide them get more familiar with the technical aspects of 5G.

“People are looking at, how do I solve this? How do I take that completely different application that wouldn’t have been able to be possible? Is there a solution for this?” Instead of a handheld solution, he offers, those smart glasses can free up paramedics’ hands while still providing them information through the heads-up display.

Even more video, including computer vision/video as a sensor. It’s going to take 5G networks to get fully utilize video capabilities, several industry experts said. The new generation of cellular technology is being standardized with features to address public safety needs, from ultra-reliability and low latency, to the capacity to deal with the enormous amount of data that connected sensors and devices will both generate and need to have processed. In many cases, that means handling video content. “4G has an immense amount of capabilities, but there are challenges when we when we get into machine-to-machine applications – how quickly data has to be transmitted, how sensitive it is to latency, and how data can be used in those type of use cases,” said Kevin Taylor, segment development manager for Axis Communications, which specializes in video cameras for smart city and public safety use. In the case of vehicle-to-infrastructure communications for stoplight-preemption for emergency vehicles, “there are scenarios where milliseconds matter,” he said – and 5G’s low latency will be needed. While there are many video camera deployments today, the ability to analyze it rapidly and isolate important information is still a challenge. But advances are being made. “We’re seeing some things being done with video that will just amaze you,” said Steve Brown, SVP of enterprise sales for Inseego. He compares 4G to 5G capabilities being like the difference between a three-lane highway versus a 50-lane highway. Brown cited facial recognition and pattern recognition in particular as having potential for public safety applications.

Augmented/Virtual reality. AR/VR are already being explored for training firefighters and law enforcement operators, including drone operators. In pandemic times, remote or socially-distanced training options are becoming even more important. Such training is also important for public safety drone operators, to keep their skills fresh and their fingers nimble. Verizon’s Nilan also sees 5G and mobile edge computing as a transformational technology. “The groundwork is there to do some incredibly interesting things,” he said. In particular, he went on, “AR and VR are two things we’ve been talking about for decades,” but were limited by network and processing capabilities. Now, the possibility of truly leveraging AR and VR is opening up, with the low latency and high speeds of 5G: for digital overlays of information on real-world conditions, or for immersion in training and response scenarios. Inseego, for example, has been working with Qwake Technologies, a company that has designed a heads-up monacle display called C-Thru that fits inside a firefighter’s face mask and can allow them to see through smoke as well as overlay information about temperature. Firefighters can use that information to make more informed and safer decisions while in challenging environments, and the data can also be used to more accurate locate people within a room even if it’s difficult to see.

Looking for more information about how mobile technology is shaping public safety response—and vice versa? Check out RCR Wireless News’ feature report on Mobile Broadband and the First Responder, available as a free download. You can also listen to the accompanying webinar on this topic. 

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