Government Technology
By Bill Schrier: Making technology work for a city government.

Why don't Cops Use Smart Phones?

August 11, 2011 By

click to see moreEvery 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:

  • listen to public safety two-way radio;
  • take meeting notes using Evernote or One Note;
  • watch episodes of TV series using Hulu;
  • read books and newspapers;
  • take photos or videos and text message them around the world.

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:

  • The apps don't exist;
  • There is no guarantee of priority access to commercial cell phone networks.

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.

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KH    |    Commented August 15, 2011

Another important reason first responders do not have these devices (supported, at least) is most of the applications available in the smartphone world are not-encrypted and could pose a large security threat even if a device remains in the hands of its user. The first key step needed to get these devices into the hands of first responders should be security. Why? What would an application mean if it wasn't encrypted and all of its data was leaked to hackers?

Rober    |    Commented August 16, 2011

Here is a good question - why should the Feds be selling off Public Airwaves int he first place? What happened to the concept of licensing? Once gone, as new techonology develops, we won't have the spectrum to use anymore.

Gary S    |    Commented August 16, 2011

The big Smart Phone issue is security. That need to be resolved before any vendor will go forward with developing government Smart Phone apps. The new malware for the Droid that can steal data and intercept voice calls is just a hint of what will come.

Jake Haggerty    |    Commented August 19, 2011

It has been expressed that providing government personnel with an app that ensures security is crucial. The CommandCore app, developed by TechRadium, is completely secure and was designed specifically for government use. It allows officers to perform a wide range of tasks directly from the field – not only increasing their ability to remain efficient and manage incidents, but also providing this capability in a secure manner. Read more about the app at:

Realist    |    Commented September 7, 2011

Bill: I thought you were right on track, until I read "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." I'm afraid you ended an otherwise good post with hype and political posturing. Do we build separate highways for emergency responders, because our public highways sometimes get congested? NO. Instead, we give first responders flashing lights on top of their vehicles that give them priority use on the public highways when they need it. Similar case for mobile broadband. The new 4G-LTE standards have priority-QoS mechanisms that can allow first responders to have priority when they need it: it's a matter of passing legislation or FCC regulation to make the cellular carriers offer Priority/QoS preference to first responders when they need it. So why the focus on a separate public safety broadband network? 1. I'm afraid the big cellular carriers would rather the government went off and built its own network, because then the carriers don't have more regulatory burden; and, competitors won't get more spectrum to compete with the big companies. 2. I'm afraid the big public safety lobbies want the control and influence that would come with having their own nationwide system, with promise of a never-ending federal budget stream paying not-for-profit corporation salaries. In the end, unless the fiscal conservatives prevail, building a separate government-only network on public safety only spectrum will be hugely expensive, will continually lag behind state-of-the-market technology, and will lack coverage equal to what commercial carriers will offer.

michael cardillo    |    Commented September 12, 2011

Bill, Just wanted to drop you a note about you article. I liked the article, but wanted to point out the the Nextel wireless commercial network does work off the PSTN and has had priority service on its direct connect voice two- way radio for 6-7 years and is available on Blackberry smartphones. This technology was of great success and use during 911 in NYC and continues to be today. As a first responder for 29 years and having used the technology on 911 when responding to a request to go to groud zero- it was on only thing working. If the Government was smart they would lease the Nextel Network nationwide to provide this across the county for first responders only.

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