PSA: Just Because a Mobile Device Is Certified for “Priority and Pre-Emption” on a Dedicated Public Safety Network Doesn’t Mean It Is Suitable for Public Safety Use

How to Ensure Your Devices (and Teams) Won't Go Dark in Emergency Situations

Two police officers look at a rugged tablet mounted in their vehicle for guidance en-route to a call.
by Joe White
August 12, 2019

If you’re a first responder in the United States, or responsible for buying technology used by first responders, then you have probably considered migrating to mobile devices certified to work on one or both of the dedicated public safety networks currently being built to keep law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) connected to one another should traditional wireless networks become overloaded. Given public safety professionals’ heavy reliability on handheld mobile computers and tablets today, it would be smart to equip your first responders with devices that will receive “priority and pre-emption” access during network-clogging natural disasters and emergency incidents – times when the average citizen may not be able to complete a call. It is in these exact circumstances that uninterrupted voice and data communication becomes critical to public safety entities.

So, yes, you should ask your mobility solution provider if the devices they’re recommending have been certified to connect to these dedicated public safety broadband networks in such instances. That means that they’ll have passed a wide range of security, durability and network impact tests without issue.

However, I must stress that certification on one or both of these dedicated public safety broadband networks does not automatically make a mobile device suitable for use for first responders.

As Bob Ashenbrenner explained in this blog post, many commercial-grade mobile devices being pitched to public safety IT departments are not built to last more than a year or two, and that’s a problem:

“They just don’t deliver the processing power, storage capacity, or enterprise-grade operating system compatibility that agencies will ultimately need. The constant learning curve that comes with introducing new or difficult-to-use mobile devices means that officers could be distracted on the job, resulting in slow decision making, missed threats, or inaccurate documentation of incidents.”

In other words, enabling your officers to use the same smartphones or tablets they may use in their personal lives just because you know they are certified for “priority and pre-emption” access on a dedicated public safety network may not deliver the results – or return on investment – that you expect. The same is true if you choose the wrong mobile device form factor for first responders, as these officers explained to us in a recent survey.

Before evaluating your mobile device options, be sure you understand your first responders’ workflows. This will make it easier to shortlist the smartphone-like devices or tablets that were built specifically for both routine public safety and emergency response use. Focus specifically on these features:

  • Reliability: This speaks to communication signal reliability, battery longevity and physical device durability. For example, it doesn’t matter if a tablet is technically capable of connecting to a dedicated public safety broadband network if the battery doesn’t last more than a few hours and can’t be hot-swapped out in the field. Or if the device won’t work in the rain, snow, or high humidity or heat environments, such as near a wildfire. Nor will wireless connectivity matter if the device goes down after a drop or upon contact with fluid, grease or oil contaminants – or if it can’t be used while wearing gloves. And, no, an IP65, IP67 or even IP68 rating alone does not make a mobile device “rugged” by public safety’s definition (or really, any definition).

(Editor's Note: These are the 5 ways to tell if a “rugged” tablet, laptop or smartphone is a knockoff.)

  • Connectivity: Again, I’m not just talking about wireless connectivity. First responders require very specific enterprise-grade inputs/outputs (I/O) and connectivity to back-office systems, GIS systems, public safety databases and even ancillary technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT) devices including wearable sensors, body cams and mobile printers. Some FirstNet Ready devices don’t offer the True Serial, USB or HDMI ports that you may need if you plan to use a tablet, for example, in the vehicle or back at the station at any point in time. You may also want, or prefer, your first responders to have push-to-talk (PTT) capabilities, but not all devices can support PTT.
  • Safety and Security: Of course, first responders need secure access to public safety records databases as well as secure communication channels. That means that you should be looking for security features such as TPM, CAC/Smart Card readers, encryption, biometrics, multi-layer authentication and the FIPS 140-2 certification. This ensures sensitive data about patients, victims, suspects and others is kept safe when shared or retrieved from electronic health records (EHR), the Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS) and more. But personal safety considerations extend to first responders’ physical well-being too. You should always inquire about the in-vehicle mounting techniques available for tablets, 2-in-1s or laptops to ensure they do not hinder line of sight or pose a risk of injury to first responders.
  • Visibility and Control: In this instance, I’m talking about two things: visibility into your devices’ location and health (and, therefore, your team’s location and health) as well as mobile device management. Device location capabilities can be invaluable if you’re trying to locate a person that is not responding on comms for some reason. At the same time, visibility and control services enable you to proactively monitor devices so that you can identify and address any potential issues before they lead to downtime. You can’t afford to dispatch first responders with a device that is going to fail in the field for one reason or another. And you need the ability to service the device in the field if something does go wrong. The right visibility and control services will deliver both capabilities. They will also empower you to extend the lifecycle of your devices and their batteries and remotely manage OS updates to prevent application malfunctions in mission-critical moments. First responders need to be able to run background checks, retrieve building blueprints, locate fire hydrants or retrieve patient medical records in a split second. They also need to be able to capture evidence and conduct roll calls without delay.

Taking this advice – and following these other 6 tips that Bob shared with public safety professionals recently – will help you “make smart near-term buys that lay a foundation for a full mobility solution with long-term relevance.”

I also recommend you download this mobility buying playbook for a full step-by-step guide on how to evaluate whether or not a mobile device delivers the mission-critical communications, security and safety tools your first responders demand.


Editor’s Note: Visit our website to learn more about the Zebra rugged touch computers and rugged tablets that have been specifically built for public safety use and certified on both of the dedicated public safety broadband networks in the U.S.:

Joe White
Joe White is responsible for the strategy, development and management of Zebra’s entire mobile computing product line, including general purpose and rugged mobile computers that facilitate business-critical applications for nearly every global industry. He holds nine RFID patents.
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