By Niki Papazoglakis, Principal, Mobility 4 Public Safety
Text-based messaging, through SMS or third-party apps, is part of our daily lives. In fact, the convenience and instantaneous delivery makes messaging the preferred means of communication for many, including most public safety professionals.
Challenges with messaging
Messaging is convenient and operationally effective for public safety. Yet, public safety organizations experience multiple barriers to officially adopting these types of mobile collaboration tools because of technical, financial and policy challenges.
From a technical perspective, a lack of interoperability standards and identity sharing frameworks make it difficult to even connect the same products across different organizations, much less integrate different products.
Financial constraints limit the wide-scale deployment of department-issued mobile devices for most public safety organizations, not to mention subscription-based fees for messaging applications.
Further, many public safety organizations operate under outdated or non-existent policies for personal device use. To get around these organizational challenges, many public safety practitioners use consumer messaging tools on personal and department-issued devices for operational communications. These applications are not secure and because messages are stored on the phone, they leave the user open to having to turn their phone in for discovery. To address these concerns and begin to link together public safety organizations so that they can securely communicate, Bridge 4 Public Safety (Bridge4PS) has built a free, interoperable collaboration application.
As the Information Age evolved, the vast amount of data has become impossible for individuals to effectively consume. The need to streamline the overwhelming volume of emails and texts led to the birth of collaboration tools including chat-based platforms which allow users to collaborate in persistent rooms/channels. These are typically cloud-hosted and optimized for mobile devices.
While most industries are adopting collaboration as primary communications tools, public safety has been slower to adopt for a few reasons:
Need for messaging collaboration
- Many organizations do not consider mobile phones official operational communications tools and thus do not provide phones to most personnel.
- Many organizations lack adequate personal device use policies.
- No platform exists to promote scalable and secure multi-organizational public safety collaboration.
Recent publications by the Texas Public Safety Broadband Program and the South Dakota Public Safety Broadband Network highlight just how critical these tools have become for many public safety practitioners (see Public Safety Messaging: A New Frontier for Collaboration and Interoperability and Interoperability Use with Mobile Broadband). Both papers cite the operational need for messaging and lack of a viable industry-wide solution.
Evolving public records laws which encompass messages on personal devices plus the common misconception that Over-The-Top (OTT) apps protect users’ phones from discovery and/or public records requests are leading many practitioners to replace SMS texting with consumer-grade apps like WhatsApp, GroupMe and Telegram. With no real alternatives, these apps are being widely used to fill a significant communications gap despite security vulnerabilities and lack of enterprise administration tools.
To combat security vulnerabilities, some consumer apps are adopting End-to-End encryption (E2E) which encrypts the data from the sender to the recipient(s) mitigating many traditional vulnerabilities. While E2E offers some protection, these apps were not designed with strong security, so vulnerabilities still exist. Regardless of the real or perceived security from E2E, this type of encryption may be well suited for private correspondence but violates many states’ public records laws. Systems with E2E encryption do not store content on a server, thus enhancing exposure of personal phones rather than protecting them.
Messaging is widely utilized for many types of operations, particularly among individual teams; however, the lack of enterprise features limits the effectiveness of consumer-grade apps when scaling to larger groups. Some public safety organizations are adopting tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams and WebEx Teams which provide value internally, but offer limited scalability across organizations.
Early experimental deployments of public safety collaboration under the Harris County FirstNet Early Builder and DHS S&T Mobility Acceleration Coalition (MAC) programs delivered transformational results during notable events such as Super Bowl LI, Los Angeles Marathon, Hurricane Harvey and numerous other local events and disasters. Each deployment demonstrated unprecedented interoperability and real-time, multi-agency information sharing. In contrast, a member of the U.S. Forest Service noted in a recap of the 2019 wildland fire season in California that at one point she had nine messaging/collaboration apps for different groups they coordinated with.
Although the operational value is clear for the coordinated adoption of enterprise-grade, multi-organizational, public safety collaboration, these deployments were only possible under experimental programs not bound by typical constraints like funding and governance. Many stakeholders are looking for an industry-wide platform to use:
- Daily for regular duty, special events and incident response.
- Anywhere they may provide mutual aid.
- With anyone they need to collaborate with operationally.
The lack of such a tool is not because the technology is unavailable. With enough funding, any vendor could build the public safety-specific features, meet industry security and compliance requirements and scale worldwide. The problem is economics.
Bridge4PS is a free, public safety collaboration platform born out of the DHS S&T MAC project after the loss of momentum for strategic mobility planning when the funding for the subscription-based app was exhausted.
Bridge4PS provides secure messaging, picture, video, file sharing and voice, video conferencing within a single nationwide platform exclusively for public safety. It is funded by the U.S. DHS and available at no cost to authorized public safety personnel as an alternative to 1) free consumer apps currently used by many practitioners; 2) premium subscription apps prohibitively expensive for most public safety organizations and 3) internal, enterprise tools that do not support interoperability.
Bridge4PS and COVID-19
Early deployments of Bridge4PS as a proof-of-concept exceeded expectations. In early 2020, DHS approved the expansion to users beyond the designated proof-of-concept regions of Houston and Los Angeles. Initial deployments for daily operations and special events produced dramatic operational results.
Just days after the Los Angeles Marathon, where Bridge4PS delivered seamless real-time communications for hundreds of users in 12 organizations across four jurisdictions, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. Since then, there has been a rapid increase in the number of users and dramatic shift in the types of use cases. It is being used across the country to coordinate COVID-19 response for local, regional and state-level operations.
Bridge4PS is available only to authorized personnel. All users are maintained in a single nationwide directory. This directory is proving highly valuable in coordinating and disseminating critical information across jurisdictions.
Disasters are not typically a good time to adopt new tools; however, COVID-19 is straining many traditional planning, response and communications models. Public safety organizations are being forced to find new means of communicating to remain effective despite predominantly remote workforces, reduced staffing from responders being quarantined, highly dynamic operational environments and increasingly limited resources (e.g., staffing, funding and supplies).
Public safety organizations are using Bridge4PS to securely disseminate COVID-19 related information such as evolving department policies, exposure procedures and various other non-sensitive content to personnel with limited access to department email when off-duty or working remotely.
As organizations adjusted to the new operational environment, many adopted Zoom for video conferencing. Like consumer messaging apps that were not designed to meet stringent security requirements, users began experiencing video bombing and security breaches that exposed hundreds of thousands of user credentials on the dark web.
The primary focus with Bridge4PS was to develop a secure, compliant and free public safety collaboration platform that could support nationwide interoperability. This is being achieved by those practitioners adopting it. Once verified and issued a credential, users can create groups and direct messages with any other user(s) in the directory without needing personal contact information.
Navigating the unknown
It is unclear how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last, and it impossible to predict its impact on individual communities. Many areas are experiencing increases in suicide, domestic violence and robberies. No one knows what will happen as communities begin re-opening. With wildfire and hurricane seasons approaching, there will likely be an even greater strain on public safety resources as cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in the U.S. and globally.
One step organizations can take to enhance preparedness and response efforts is to join the thousands of public safety practitioners around the country adopting Bridge4PS. Authorized personnel can learn more at https://www.bridge4ps.com or request access at https://access.bridge4ps.com. Public safety has a unique opportunity to avoid the interoperability challenges experienced with radios and CAD and truly harness the power of mobile broadband through mobile collaboration by bridging public safety communications with Bridge4PS.
Niki Papazoglakis has been actively involved in public safety technology and communications for nearly 20 years. She has led numerous ground-breaking projects that have helped advance the state of public safety communications and IT nationally including the first regional broadband requirements gathering project which DHS incorporated into its best practices guidance, the first all-digital PSAP with sub-second connections for wireless callers, and the first large-scale operational deployment of PSLTE for Super Bowl LI in Houston which set a standard for the utilization of mobile broadband technologies through seamless interoperability and information sharing. Building on the momentum from her role with the Harris County Early Builder program, Niki has formed Mobility 4 Public Safety, a consulting firm specializing in regional, interoperable mobility strategy and public safety collaboration.
IPSA COVID-19 Webpage