Institute for Telecommunication Sciences / Research Topics / Public Safety Communications Research

Public Safety Communications Research

U.S. Government laboratories have worked to ensure the availability of wireless communications for the public safety since the earliest days of the 20th century. The Wireless Ship Act of 1912, responding in part to the tragedy of the Titanic’s distress signals going unheard by the closest ships, laid out emergency communications mandates for ships at sea. One hundred years later, Congress responded to the tragedy of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by mandating a nationwide interoperable public safety broadband network, allocating the spectrum for it, and establishing the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) to administer it. During the century between the two, the Department of Commerce radio laboratories continued to work hand in hand with other government agencies at all levels to improve communications for public safety, national security, and emergency preparedness.

ITS has supported that work since its inception and continues to apply its unique expertise and resources to investigate emerging technologies to ensure that telecommunication systems continue to meet the specialized needs of mission-critical communication. Both fundamental research projects and collaborative research with the NIST Communications Technology Laboratory (NIST/CTL), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and FirstNet are carried out in close and constant coordination with public safety practitioners.

The unique needs of public safety users drive specialized public safety communications research efforts. Commercial wireless network development is primarily driven by the need to continually add capacity and accommodate demand for bleeding edge technology. For the public safety community, expanding coverage is often more critical than expanding capacity—incidents do not occur only within areas of high population density. Similarly, because signal degradation that is a nuisance to a civilian user may be life-threatening to a public safety practitioner, public safety users require that their communications technologies be reliable, robust, and resilient rather than released to market yesterday. At the networking level, during a large-scale emergency, public safety networks must allow first responders from multiple services and jurisdictions to communicate, while giving the incident commander control over resource prioritization.

ITS research addresses network management for national security and emergency preparedness (NS/EP); clear and effective audio communications for first responders; and improving the way video technologies serve the public safety community. Research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) projects investigate emerging technologies to ensure that telecommunication systems continue to meet the specialized needs of mission-critical communication and explore the ways in which both public safety and commercial networks and equipment can be optimized for public safety users. Standards development efforts target inclusion of public safety requirements in commercial standards so that public safety agencies can benefit from the competitive commercial market in cost-effectively acquiring communications equipment.