Mission Critical Voice Roundtable Brings Together FirstNet, PSCR, and Public Safety

March 28, 2016
Dereck Orr from the PSCR Program briefs participants at the Mission Critical Voice Roundtable held in March 2016
Dereck Orr from the PSCR Program briefs participants at the Mission Critical Voice Roundtable held in March 2016

By Jeff Bratcher, FirstNet Chief Technology Officer, and Mike Worrell, FirstNet Senior Fire Services Advisor

Members of the FirstNet CTO and User Advocacy teams had the opportunity to participate in the Mission Critical Voice (MCV) roundtable held earlier this month by the Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) program at the Department of Commerce Boulder Laboratories. The roundtable was designed to:

  • Begin the research effort to ensure that public safety has access to Mission Critical Broadband solutions, which are critical to the deployment of the nationwide public safety broadband network (NPSBN);
  • Validate previous interviews of public safety conducted by PSCR;
  • Validate the research approach for Mission Critical Broadband, which is one of the primary research areas identified in the legislation that created FirstNet; and
  • Characterize the key features that make up MCV today (Direct Mode, Push-to-Talk, Emergency Alerting, Group Communications, Audio Quality, and Talker ID), including associated key performance indicators (KPIs) and challenges.

In addition to FirstNet and PSCR, roundtable participants included representatives from all major public safety disciplines and the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice. This diverse group of participants was an important factor in identifying the baseline functions of public safety radio systems today. This baseline will aid in the development of the MCV functions on the FirstNet network.

The topics generated lively discussion and debate among public safety and the technologists from PSCR and FirstNet on the functions required for MCV.  Public safety representatives described the functions in use today and their importance as they relate to operations and safety.  Roundtable discussion topics included:

  • Emergency Buttons: “Emergency Buttons” function differently across current Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems both on and off network. One of the key take-aways from the discussion was the need for flexibility configuring the emergency button. The LMR systems in place today allow the local jurisdiction to program both the system and the radio to meet the operational requirements of the users.
  • Local Control: In current LMR systems, a local jurisdiction can modify a channel plan/talkgroup plan. Public safety communicated the need for administrative privileges to add or remove talkgroups and to set voice traffic access and priority.  
  • Audio Quality: Members of public safety described the challenges encountered with audio quality on digital Project 25 (P25) LMR radio systems. Public safety reinforced the need to duplicate real world environments encountered by first responders during lab testing to ensure that a broadband or Long Term Evolution (LTE) system performs adequately.
  • On Network and Off Network functionality: Public safety described the use of off-network communications today. Based on agency/jurisdiction specific operating environments and coverage areas, some agencies/jurisdictions use on network (trunked) communications for operations and others do not. The procedures governing on versus off network may not be consistent inter-agency or intra-agency and will be a key concern in migrating direct mode to broadband. Public safety also prioritized the need for broadband systems to operate off-network and communicate in and out of buildings or other structures.
  • Key Performance Indicators (KPI): PSCR emphasized the need to identify strong KPIs for each required feature. KPIs provide measurable performance standards that PSCR, FirstNet, and others can use to objectively measure whether public safety is receiving truly MCV level service. This will be important in the future to determine if the performance functionality meets operational requirements of public safety.

Next Steps

The roundtable was a critical step in helping PSCR, FirstNet, and ultimately public safety define and begin their efforts to achieve MCV over LTE.  Moving forward, PSCR is planning to work with FirstNet and public safety to:

  • Characterize how each of the six features identified works in current LMR technology.
  • Identify gaps between how those features perform on current LMR systems and on LTE systems.
  • Initiate research projects to bridge those gaps including potential prize competitions and other funding from PSCR’s Innovation Accelerator.

-Jeff and Mike

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