August 11, 2011 By Bill Schrier
Every teenager - including some of us 50 and 60 year old teenagers - seems to have a smart phone these days. I'm writing this on an airplane, and I just finished an intense, 20 minute "Angry Birds" session on my HTC Android smart phone (yes, it was in "airplane" mode!). I'm almost a Luddite when it comes to apps and smart phones, barely even able to play games on them.
However many people young and old commonly use their smart phones or tablet computers to do interesting, productive activities such as:
Gee, some people even use their smart phones to actually make voice telephone calls!?
So why don't cops and firefighters, emergency medical technicians and electrical lineworkers, public works and transportation department employees, and a whole other host of critical and important government workers use smart phones in their daily jobs?
Of course these public safety workers DO use smart phones. Often they use their PERSONAL smart phones to do some part of their job. But rarely do governments give their workers smart phones - other than BlackBerrys for email, that is - to officially do their jobs and become much more productive. In fairness, that's not because Mayors and County Executives and Governors are unsupportive, or government CFOs are penny-pinching.
We don't give government workers these important tools for two basic reasons:
In terms of the "apps", most governments use a relatively small set of applications from a few vendors - there are records management systems, computer-aided dispatch systems, utility billing systems, work management systems, etc. And many of the vendors of those systems only recently have built them to accept even web-browser access. The terms and conditions for our (government's) use of such software explicitly says we'll only use the software with vendor approved configurations, or the vendor won't give us support. And most vendors for these government-specific systems don’t make a version of their application which runs on a smart phone, whether it is a Windows Phone 7, Apple iPad or Iphone, or Google Android.
Software companies: Get on the stick and write smart phone apps for your software. 'nuf said.
More importantly, government workers presently have to use commercial mobile networks for their smart phones. And on those networks, public safety and critical infrastructure workers have no priority. That means your teenager (even if she's 50 years old) has the same priority as a cop or firefighter or electrical lineworker responding to a major incident or emergency.
Do you want that emergency medical technician responding to YOUR heart attack to have priority access - wirelessly and in real time - to your medical history, and to the emergency room doctors at the level 1 trauma center, and to a video conference with your cardiologist? Of course you do!
During a robbery, when you or your employees are being held up with a weapon, don't you want the responding cops to be able to see the video of your store - including the images of the perpetrators, in real time as they respond? And have passers-by snapping photos and video of the perps to send to 911 centers using next generation 911 technologies? Of course you do!
When your electrical power is out, or your water is interrupted, don't you want that utility worker to have access to all the diagrams and network configurations so they can accurately pinpoint where the outage is and rapidly fix it? Well, of course you do.
If, all of a sudden, a kid in your child's high school goes crazy and brings a gun to that school, taking teachers and students hostage, don't you want responding cops and firefighters to have access to the video cameras with interior views of the school, and to the school's building plan showing all the exits, and maybe even to the GPS on the cell phone used by the kid with the gun so they can see his (they are all boys, alas) exact position in the school? Obviously we do.
But the blunt fact of the matter is this: At the same time you are having a heart attack, or your business is being robbed, or your electricity fails, or a school lockdown occurs - everyone who has a cell phone within a mile of the incident may be texting and calling and tweeting and sending photographs to their loved ones, and the commercial cellular networks will be overloaded.
That's why we don't give cops and firefighters smart phones. Because - besides the fact that safe, secure, apps don't exist - when responders most need their smart phones, the cell phone networks will be overloaded and will fail them.
Is there a way out of this dilemma? "Of course there is!"
Several bills are pending in Congress today which would allocate wireless spectrum for priority use by police, firefighters, emergency medical techs - and also by electrical lineworkers, public works employees and transportation workers . Those same bills would auction other spectrum for use by carriers, producing almost $26 billion in revenue to both reduce the federal government deficit and to build a nationwide public safety network which responders could use - with priority over all other users and uses.
Then those first and second responders could use smart phone applications every day, confident that the network will be available, no matter what nearby teenagers are doing.
But, like so much else in this year of 2011, Congress is in deadlock. Some brave Senators and Representatives such as Jay Rockefeller and Kay Bailey Hutchison (with Senate Bill S.911) and Peter King and Maria Cantwell and Dave Reichert do step up to the plate, led by Vice President Biden. They all support creation of a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network. At the same time, many others in Congress stall and block the work, while people needlessly are hurt or die.
Why don't cops and firefighters use smart phones? Because some in Congress would rather play politics, argue endlessly, and pinch funding than give our responders the tools they need to save lives and protect property every day, as well as during future disasters.
With the 10th anniversary of the September 11th World Trade Center disaster just a month away, does this dithering make sense? Of course it doesn't.