Friday, October 24, 2014

Why not use cellphones?

I've been asked this question several times lately, as I make the speaking circuit and talk about the need to replace the City's aging radio system. It's a perfectly understandable question, as everyone these days is tethered to their smartphone. To be sure, cell phones are a terrific convenience. They are used all the time by public safety staff, but not for critical communications. There's good reason for that

Police officers and firefighters, are not having one-to-one conversations over the radio system. Rather, their radio traffic is one-to-many. It's a fundamental difference between a cell phone call and a public safety broadcast. Technically, you could use the same cell phone infrastructure to carry a group call, but the more serious limitations of cell phones for emergency communications lie in the design and engineering of the equipment and systems.

Ever drop your smartphone? If so, you had that sinking feeling, because we all know that the chances of it working when you pick it up are iffy. Cracked screens are a dime a dozen. How long do you think a smartphone would hold up in a foot pursuit? Do you think it would work if it got really, really wet, like directing traffic in a downpour, or on the fireground? Sure, you could encase it in the Binford 5000 case (is that reference beginning to date me?), but are you willing to bet your life on that? Public safety radios are weather-sealed, robust and mil-spec. The even greater concern, however, is not the end-user device, but rather the system itself.

Cell sites are not built to the same standard as public safety radio sites, which are engineered to withstand higher stress from such things as wind, lightning strikes, ice, and natural disasters. Public safety radio systems are designed with backups and redundancies to minimize the likelihood of failure. They also manage traffic differently, giving users priority for access to the system based on the criticality of their function. If you've ever tried using your cellphone at a big event, like a football game, festival, or mass gathering, you've probably experienced difficulty getting access to make a call. Traffic can overwhelm cell sites pretty quickly, as hundreds or thousands of users are competing for the same resources at the same time in the same area.

Experience around the country in critical incidents and events, like hurricanes, tornadoes, windstorms, ice storms, and the like has shown over and over again that cell phone communications are simply too vulnerable to be relied upon for vital communications in emergencies. Simply put, when you most need communications, cell phones are least likely to work.

Overnight on October 24-25, 1997 Lincoln was hit be a devastating snowstorm. It was a late fall that year, and the leaves had not fallen yet. The weight of the wet snow was devastating. Huge limbs and trees were down everywhere. This photo below, taken by UNL climatologist Dr. Ken Dewey, depicts one of Lincoln's main thoroughfares, A Street at about 43rd. Tens of thousands of homes and businesses were without utilities for up to ten days. Temporary shelters were opened around town, and the police and fire departments were in full emergency mode.

I remember standing in the Emergency Operations Center on the morning of October 25th, passing out City of Lincoln portable radios to Nebraska National Guard soldiers, who were teaming up with police officers and using HumVees to locate and evacuate home-bound citizens with complex medical issues. We had the only functioning communications system in Lincoln. It kept on ticking while telephone service--both landline and cellular--was crippled across the city for days. While this was the most severe event I remember in terms of its impact on commercial communications systems, it's certainly not the only one. Our next radio system needs the same level of reliability as the one it is replacing has delivered when the chips were down.


Anonymous said...

I am not a scientist, but...
I am not a doctor, but...
I am not a communications specialist, but...

Just a regular guy who watches, listens, and reads a little. Really Mister Director, it is not a perfectly understandable question. The person asking it would either be
A. A cell phone co. representative or
B. A person totally ignorant of emergency communications or worse
C. Someone who hates taxation and is stocking his bunker waiting for the apocalypse.

I watched intently as you made a perfectly understandable presentation to our City Council to have the voters vote yay or nay on entering the modern age of emergency communications. An yet 3 politicians of a certain political "ilk" decided we weren't up to the task of making that decision. Really, truly, how did that make you feel?

It wouldn't take the 97 storm (which I remember well) to cause havoc. A couple dropped calls, dead batteries, etc.

I can just imagine the 911 dispatcher frantically dialing cell #'s.

Come on people, get yer head outa yer arse!

Anonymous said...

Let's face it the radio system on its own would have had a better chance of passing if fire stations weren't tied to it. Due to past mismanagement and greed within LFR politicians and the public are skeptical. Thankfully with you at the helm and Chief Huff running it now things are getting better but the rank and file have a long way to go.

Anonymous said...

During and after the 1997 storm, in which we lost power for three days, our trusty 1950s era hard-wired dial up telephone worked perfectly. We were the only people on our block, just west of the Country Club, to have phone service. Our cordless phones, which required electricity to work, were worthless. We took that phone off the wall when we moved in 2006 and installed it in our current home. A friendly TW guy fixed it so we can dial in and out from it (he at one time had worked for Lincoln Tel, and he fixed the phone on the QT while here for a different reason) That phone offers a little piece of mind now.

Anonymous said...

"But that's how they do it on TV."

Anonymous said...

I agree that if the fire stations weren't attached to this then it would pass.