Ensuring Your Smart Response Vehicles Stay Connected

ESO Staff

First responders today are driving and operating increasingly “smart” vehicles, sending and receiving data on an almost constant basis. From automatic vehicle location (AVL) and computer aided dispatch (CAD), to traffic signal prioritization and communication with headquarters and hospitals, EMTs and firefighters utilize cutting edge technology to make their jobs more efficient. Besides helping save more lives and property, these tools can save an agency substantial costs in money and man-hours. 

However, the flip side of data-rich vehicles is the risk of interrupted – or completely lost – connectivity, and the negative impacts that come with it. A lost or lagging signal can have small, simply annoying inconveniences, like having to reboot an application, needing to wait until you reach better coverage to transmit information, or even forgoing helpful tools like HD video sharing. Other times, a poor signal can have more dramatic implications, like a lack of updated GPS information leaving a fire truck stuck in a traffic jam, or an EMS bus being unable to transmit urgent patient data to a receiving ED.  

As a preventive measure against signal loss, industry experts recommend adding a backup, or alternative, network, thereby creating a “multi-networking” system that ensures you never lose connectivity on your mission critical applications. Installing an additional networking option can be invaluable when you drive out of optimal cellular coverage, when your primary provider is experiencing network difficulties, or when you’ve reached your data limit on your primary network. Instead of impacting your real-time connectivity, your system will automatically shift to its secondary option, which can include a different commercial cellular network, Wi-Fi, LMR, satellite modem, private cellular such as FirstNet Band 14, or a combination of several of these. 

Another benefit of utilizing a back-up network approach is that you can customize your system with highly specific instructions that go beyond how to respond when your primary network is having difficulties. For example, you can set instructions for your system to always automatically switch back to your headquarters’ WiFi when the vehicle is parked back at the dock. Or, you could make the criteria be whether or not the vehicle is moving, so that your system does not try to connect to headquarters when you are simply passing by on the road. You can also set specifications on when you want your system to transmit certain data to make the most of your connectivity; for example, waiting until you are in a WiFi connection to send large files and video. 

It’s important to note that the time it takes to switch between networks is a key consideration in preserving your connectivity; industry experts suggest checking to ensure it takes less than a second for your system to switch to its secondary option, so that you do not lose valuable time or data during the switching. In fact, some applications may actually reboot if connectivity is lost for a long enough time. Other times, you may be depending on your connection to tell you your next step in a turn-by-turn navigation; missing that even momentarily can send you down a wrong street and cost you valuable time. 

Another important consideration when setting up a multi-network system is ensuring that all systems you will be utilizing support the level of security clearance you require for your mission critical applications. Additionally, you should consider what customizations and specifications you want to establish – specifically guidelines as to when and how to shift between networks – and make sure all networks included in your setup are cohesive. 

Even the smartest, most advanced technologies are worth very little when they are cut off from the networks that power them and the connections that send and receive their valuable data. Ensuring that your smart vehicle can remain online, even in the most extreme cases, can help your teams have the tools to do more for their communities, their teams, and their agencies. 

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