APCO Seminar: How to Solve Tomorrow's Public Safety Interoperability Problems Today

Public safety data interoperability problems can be solved with interagency cooperation and the technology we use on our personal devices every day. 

At the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials’ (APCO’s) annual conference last year, the organization hosted a professional development session titled How Open, Neutral Cloud Solutions Can Solve Tomorrow's Interoperability Problems. The seminar featured Brandon Abley, who at the time was a consultant at public safety technology consulting firm Televate, and who now serves as director of technical issues at NENA: The 9-1-1 Association

Abley’s seminar examined the issues facing public safety interoperability and how technology we use on our personal cell phones every day -- sharing links over various social media platforms, storing photos in the cloud, two-factor authentication and more -- is technology we should be incorporating into something much more critical: public safety applications and systems. 

4 Key Takeaways for Solving Tomorrow’s Interoperability Issues 
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#1 Lack of standardization adds complexity to data sharing

In public safety, conversation is shifting to applications and data interoperability and away from simply getting radios to work together. While this shift is exciting, it can also spell trouble for an industry without any standardized interoperable systems. 

Abley’s work brings him face to face with these problems every day, and some solutions, he said, are more clear than others.

“When I work on cross-border radio interoperability projects, for example, in most cases it’s two [different] systems, and the interoperability solutions are a little easier to figure out,” he said. “Or maybe we have two different radio system vendors, but we only have a handful of vendors that provide these big, trunked radio systems. So we have a small number of solutions that we can turn to.” 

Apps, on the other hand, are convenient and easily portable, but they also come with their own problems, he noted. After all, nowadays anyone with a little programming know-how and some patience can create and publish an app. 

How can agencies keep up, much less cooperate with other organizations using different products under high-stress circumstances? 

“The lower barrier to entry to deploy the products and services for public safety means that we have a lot more variables, and getting stuff to work together will be a lot more complicated going into the future,” Abley predicted. 

#2 We already use cloud solutions every day. 

The technology we need to make public safety data systems interoperable is staring us in the face from an unlikely source -- our own smartphones. 

Email, messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger and iMessage, cloud-based photo storage, and two-factor authentication systems to verify identity across social media sites are all examples of ready-to-go technology that could change the way public safety agencies share data and coordinate with one another to save lives. 

We don’t give a second thought about the two seconds it takes to share links, or save photos, or access our email, Abley pointed out, so what’s stopping the public safety industry from incorporating the same elements into our own systems? 

The few public safety applications that do allow sharing are limited and almost never work between vendors, Abley said. 

“I’ve been involved in CAD to CAD projects where, with considerable amounts of effort, we can allow certain jurisdictions to share their data across applications, but it’s not easy,” he said. 

#3 Public safety can take a cue from Google. 

To examine how data portability and interoperability have already made their mark in markets outside public safety, Abley analyzed the way Google allows users to use one proven identity, with two-factor authentication to log in anywhere and share permissions with third parties. 

I’m talking about a future public safety identity that is this portable,” Abley said.

“Right now, our identity, and permissions, are fragmented across different applications and systems, even within the same organization. By using a model like Google’s we can simplify handling our identity and permissions with our own applications, and simplify sharing with others.” 

With the right approach, this technology could be shared and accessed by agencies using different service providers, the way two people might use different cell phone service providers to log on to social media networks and share information digitally. 

“If we have a good framework in our industry, we could have a public safety identity standard so that any agency could bring their credentialing system, and it could be trusted by everyone else,” he said. 

#4 Interoperability delays are a matter of will, not technology. 

Abley described a fascinating -- and frustrating -- piece of public safety history: Technology that makes possible national interoperability channels such as VCALL10 and VTAC11 was technically viable as early as the 1950s -- but these frequencies were only standardized by the FCC a little over 20 years ago. 

Why was this, Abley asked? 

To him, the answer is a human error rather than a technology issue. 

“The problem isn’t that this stuff is technically very difficult, the problem is us and our approach,” Abley said. 

Humans, not lack of technology, is what delayed interoperability in the 1950s, and if we’re not careful, Abley warned, it could affect interoperability into the future. 

So how can we avoid another 40-year delay and make sure we’re taking full advantage of the technology that exists right now? 

First, Abley said, we need to change the human element. 

“Agencies have to want to share, they have to see the value in sharing [information, systems and technology],” Abley explained. “Sharing content and managing permissions in the cloud between apps is not difficult in technical terms. We do it all the time. We don’t even think about it.”

The next step is to streamline the user experience in already existing interoperable systems and to engineer future systems with interoperability and experience as priorities. 

“In some cases, systems for interoperable data have been set up and products are available, but they aren’t implemented or utilized effectively because of the user experience,” Abley said. “How often do you install an app, but it feels kind of clunky and never use it again?” 

This same issue plagues public safety systems, Abley said, but with human lives on the line, the stakes are much higher. 

“We need to set standards now that promote data portability,” Abley said. “We need to demand it and we need to make it important.” 

Learn more about APCO 2019 being held August 11-14, 2019, in Baltimore.

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