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Why is Cellular Coverage Essential for Public Safety?

first responder communicating on a cellular phone

Cellular coverage is essential for public safety because first responders need to be able to send and receive crucial data and communicate during emergencies. Public safety responders use smartphones and other connected devices to better communicate and manage police, fire, and EMT operations during emergency calls ranging from traffic accidents to ambulance calls. The cell phone is a primary communication method for a growing number of people. The ease of use, convenience, and ability to communicate quickly make cell phones a popular choice for the public as well as for emergency use.

Cellular connectivity provides real-time data to communication abilities that are needed in critical situations. A firefighter doesn’t need a cell phone to fight fires, but they need them to communicate on procedures and plans of attack so they can respond quickly and effectively.

Communication speed and accuracy are key to saving lives. For example, searching for survivors of hurricanes, tornados, wildfires, or other natural disasters requires a coordinated response between police, fire, and EMT first responders. First responders may also need to communicate with military personnel when called in to assist. The ability to communicate accurately and quickly saves lives and enables a more effective emergency response.

That said, there are issues with cell service reliability and coverage, especially within structures or buildings and in the remote outdoors. Communication networks tend to fail during heavy use or when emergencies occur in these locations.

What are the solutions to ensure quality, reliable cell coverage for public safety? How can new technology help ensure emergency personnel can communicate effectively and save lives? How can we ensure emergency responders can access and communicate reliably regardless of location?

Key Takeaways

  • Why is cellular coverage critical for public safety?
  • How do first responders use smartphones and connected devices?
  • What is Public Safety DAS?
  • Discover the importance of DAS or in-building wireless coverage.
  • Learn the frequencies reserved for first responders and why they’re needed.
  • Find out how boosting connectivity improves safety inside buildings and in outdoor spaces.
  • Learn how 5G helps improve public safety communication systems.

This guide describes the current state of cellular communication for public safety and its unique communication needs including extended coverage indoors as well as outdoors, and the technology being used to improve cellular coverage and reliability.

Why is Cellular Coverage Critical for Public Safety?

Smartphones and connected devices are used by nearly everyone for work and personal communication. The convenience of the device size and the connection speed make connected devices perfect for communicating with friends, family, and the workplace. Similarly, emergency responders use smartphones and connected devices to communicate with a central hub, each other, and between agencies during emergency situations.

The speed of smartphones enables police, fire, and EMTs to respond faster and communicate easier with each other. However, cellular coverage in buildings and remote outdoor locations is often unreliable where it even exists. 65% of first responders experienced a communication failure inside a building or structure during an emergency response.

The inability to communicate effectively with command centers, each other, or support personnel makes managing a critical situation more difficult. Cellular coverage is critical for emergency personnel to better manage emergencies of any size, indoors or out.

What is Public Safety DAS?

Public Safety DAS provides comprehensive coverage within 90% of a structure with 99% coverage of critical areas for emergency responders’ use only. DAS stands for distributed antenna systems and they are installed within a building to boost cellular signals and enable them to reach indoors. They are often combined with Commercial Cellular DAS which provides cell service coverage throughout a building as well as adding in additional capacity for smartphone communication.

The advantages of installing both systems in building structures include:

  • Both systems can accommodate the inherent interaction between cellular service and public safety needs.
  • The systems manage wavelengths for various bands and frequencies to ensure service coverage for emergency responders.
  • Less expensive to install together as a single cellular coverage system.

For public safety, every building must include a working Commercial Cellular DAS and Public Safety DAS system. Having both systems ensures cellular coverage during an emergency throughout the building so communication is not lost or restricted. Effective cellular coverage ensures the communications needs are met for first responders attempting to respond to an emergency. Communication saves the lives of first responders and the public.

Building codes must be updated and enforced to include full structure cellular coverage. Within the United States, 95% of the public owns a cell phone to use for personal, work, and emergency use. The ability to connect to reliable cell service is a necessity both for the public and for all emergency responders and emergency response organizations.

What about emergencies that occur outdoors? Currently, cellular communication is unreliable in many national parks and other remote outdoor locations. When emergencies occur, first responders are forced to use radio communication in areas where cellular coverage is sparse or non-existent. The US Government has been pushing cell providers to increase coverage in remote and underserved areas. Such increased coverage helps to ensure public safety by enabling effective and fast cellular communication.

Consider the outdoor mass shooting events that have occurred at concerts or other outdoor locations in the past 5 years. Without the ability to effectively communicate, public safety is at risk. Providing the ability for emergency responders to communicate effectively, rapidly, and reliably is key to managing outdoor public safety emergencies.

How Boosting Connectivity Improves Public Safety Inside Buildings and Outdoors

Boosting cellular connectivity means increased cellular coverage both for public and emergency use. Boosting connectivity alone won’t solve the public safety communication problem. Public safety networks must be exclusive and accessible for first responders and emergency agency officials. For this reason, there are reserved frequencies available only for public safety use.

Public safety reserved frequencies are in the range of 30MHz-150MHz, 450MHz, and 800MHz, lower VHF bands, and tactical frequencies.

Boosting cellular coverage throughout buildings and outdoors improves both the public’s and the emergency responders’ ability to communicate rapidly when managing an emergency event.

Solutions to Improve Cellular Coverage

Several commercial providers have deployed NPSBN (Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network) like FirstNet. FirstNet provides cellular coverage to increase public safety. AT&T was the first provider to enable the use of their cellular bands to provide the FirstNet service exclusively to emergency responders. Emergency responder exclusive cellular access helps to ensure first responders have fast and reliable connectivity to better manage emergencies.

Exclusive networks like FirstNet are important to ensuring first responders aren’t trying to communicate over a crowded network. Speed is critical to effective emergency response and response management.

The US Government continues to expand cellular coverage in both remote and underserved areas. The development of signals that are strong enough to function within buildings as well as outdoors is key. 5G wireless helps to achieve reliable connectivity regardless of location and multiple networks continue to expand coverage across the US. 5G will improve public safety as it expands across the US.

How Does 5G Improve Public Safety Communication Systems?

5G creates a whole new category of tools to provide high-speed connectivity with lower latency regardless of location. Using 5G, existing DAS systems improve coverage within existing and newly constructed buildings. 5G also provides connectivity between public safety communications and first responder radio networks, allowing for increased, synchronized communication across channels.

5G enables advances in the public safety sector, including life-saving apps, real-time drone surveillance, enhanced vision systems useful during fires, and crisis negotiation or bomb investigating robots.

Faster communication enables quick emergency response times regardless of location as well as the ability to call 911 on a cellular phone without special processes or instructions. 5G improves emergency response and public safety while enabling efficient and reliable communication channels for emergency responders and the public.

Public safety in the cellular age requires effective, widespread cell coverage. Effective cell coverage is critical for providing a timely and effective response to emergencies, regardless of location. Without reliable cell coverage, communications between emergency responders are less effective and more time-consuming.

Smartphones and connected devices provide mobile access for everyone but are especially useful for communicating and managing emergency situations. Devices and apps require connectivity to work reliably both inside buildings as well as outdoors and in remote locations.

Buildings often have dead zones or reduce the effectiveness of cellular signals. The importance of installing Public Safety DAS and Commercial DAS antenna systems helps to extend coverage within buildings so all areas are reachable, including stairwells, basements, and rooms without windows. Emergency responders require exclusive channels that are always on and accessible.

The continued expansion of 5G wireless will increase public safety by creating exclusive networks for emergency providers that work within buildings and outdoors, regardless of location. The ability to communicate rapidly and reliably is key to keeping first responders safe and able to provide emergency response services. Both the public and first responders win with increased cellular service connectivity and reliability both indoors and out.