FirstNet helps ensure emergency medical communications during a really big disaster – and every day

FirstNet offers the first-ever nationwide LTE enhanced packet core built specifically for the first responder community.
10:04 AM
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First responder walking by fire.

First responders are accustomed to making the best of dire situations, in the field. For decades, they coordinated response efforts via two-way radios tethered to their trucks, which was far from ideal. Today, first responders have realized that there is so much more they can do with wireless broadband communications on smartphones, tablets and other devices during emergencies.  In addition to transforming police, fire and emergency medical response efforts, wireless broadband opens the door to a connected ecosystem that allows hospitals and other critical infrastructure to coordinate closely every day as well as during significant events.

“They want to tap into the power of this type of communication,” said Ladimer Nagurney, professor of electrical, computer and biomedical engineering at the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Connecticut.

With new capabilities came new expectations — especially as clinical care standards evolved in tandem, according to Joey Branton, director of technologies at Acadian Companies, a Lafayette, Louisiana-based ambulance services company.

“When cellular became the predominant means of communication, it changed the dynamics because it offered so many additional capabilities. At the same time, clinical care was evolving, and there were new requirements for people having heart attacks and strokes. These new standards require that first responders share biometric information with hospital emergency departments,” Branton said.

With wireless broadband, the possibility of leveraging an ecosystem of Internet of Things devices, also looms. For example, “when a firefighter goes into a hot building on a hot day with his heavy equipment, a monitoring device could record his body temperature, heart rate and other vitals so ED clinicians could remotely monitor that first responder and pull him or her out before that responder becomes a victim,” Nagurney said.

To tap into such potential, however, public safety communications needs dedicated network resources that are not competing with that of the public. This includes taking into consideration that emergencies often happen where there is inherently high competition for bandwidth. Even things like calling in additional medical staff to a trauma center, can be impacted during a large emergency.

Nagurney cited the example of the Boston Marathon. “During the marathon disaster, all of a sudden, everyone started using their smartphones – whether it was to send pictures to friends to show them what was happening – or to call relatives to tell them they were OK.  The public wireless networks got saturated and it impacted the emergency responders needing to communicate.”

Acadian is overcoming these limitations by contracting with FirstNet, a dedicated network for public safety that offers first responders their own “fast lane,” making it possible to prioritize their communications and preempt commercial users.  Priority means you’re put at the top of the list. In times of high volume, callers wait in a queue for spectrum to open up as the base station does things to help try to cram more people in. One of those things is throttling back data speeds. With preemption, all of the network resources are made available to public safety.

FirstNet offers the first-ever nationwide LTE enhanced packet core built specifically for the first responder community. This core serves as the brain and nervous system of the network and supports functions such as quality of service, First Priority™ – which includes priority and preemption – and push-to-talk communications.  With push-to-talk, first responders gain interoperability that makes it possible to communicate with other cross-functional emergency teams regardless of what LTE or radio network they are using.

“With the FirstNet network, we will cease competing for the airspace and bandwidth with consumers and, therefore, our communications will become more interoperable, resilient, highly available and effective,” Branton said. “For example, when first responders are sending critical, time sensitive 12-lead cardiac tracings on a patient [whom] we suspect is having an acute heart attack, they can do so with confidence because FirstNet provides the priority and preemption to those cellular transmissions. The patients can then be triaged to a place that has a waiting catheterization team and lab, so they can be treated within an hour. With such a network, we look forward to tapping into the potential associated with cellular communication while mitigating much of the risk associated with public networks.”

More than 1,000 public safety agencies across 52 states and territories have joined FirstNet, nearly doubling the network's adoption since April.