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Future-Proofing Emergency First Responder Communications Systems: A Case Study in Chester County

by Benoit Tournier, Director of Marketing, Transportation
Chester County, Pennsylvania faced a dilemma: their first responder mobile data communications system was aging and they were using a mobile data private radio network that was quickly becoming obsolete. Emergency Services Director Bobby Kagel needed to find a more reliable system to replace this private network. Kagel wanted a future-proof, cutting-edge solution that would allow Emergency Services dispatchers to communicate more effectively with first responders in the field. 

After researching available first responder communications systems, Chester County decided that a cellular-based system would provide the most support and bandwidth for their applications. By considering where the latest communications technology was headed—and which solution would be the most future-proof—Chester County completely revamped their first responder mobile data communications systems, resulting in faster response times and end-to-end support for every aspect of the system’s applications.

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The Challenges Facing Chester County Emergency Responders

When Chester County implemented their original mobile data private radio network system in the early 1990s, the technology was quite reliable and stable. However, as communications technology improved, this old system became less and less effective with every passing year. The system could only support text-based dispatch and the network was very slow. The county wanted to move to more modern, advanced systems, which simply wasn’t possible with the department’s existing radio technology as the backbone communications system. 

That wasn’t the only challenge for Chester County Emergency Services. In 2012, as its private network system and supported products naturally reached the end of life, Chester County also faced the introduction of First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet™), which made it even more important for Emergency Services to create a new first responder communications system. When FirstNet was first under discussion, emergency departments around the country were unsure what the new system requirements would be or if the proposed authority would be implemented at all. This left Chester County with a dilemma: should the county work on supporting FirstNet’s core Radio Access Network now or wait to see whether FirstNet would be used in Pennsylvania? To future-proof their new first responder communications system, they had to consider whether or not to include FirstNet support as a key component. 

To make the most out of its emergency first responder communications system, Chester County had a few requirements. First, the system had to be truly turnkey—they didn’t want to contact one company to resolve a network connection issue and another to resolve a gateway problem. Contacting just one support team for the entire system was a necessity to keep their daily operations simple and streamlined. Chester County also needed at least 95 percent coverage to reach as many people in the county as possible. This streamlined, high-coverage system needed to be secure, reliable and FirstNet-ready. 

Making the Decision: Private Network or Public Cellular

When Bobby Kagel started in his role, plans were already in place to replace the outdated private network with a new, upgraded private network system. However, Kagel and Chester County officials soon realized that a private network wouldn’t meet all their needs. In fact, the system could result in more complications down the road. A private network would cost the county millions of dollars to implement and, in the end, Emergency Services would only see a slight increase in performance. Moreover, if FirstNet became the new standard in Pennsylvania, a private network wouldn’t be compliant with these new requirements. The county would be forced to implement a brand-new system for FirstNet. This would mean abandoning the private network solution just a few short years after it was introduced. 

After reviewing the available options and consulting with Sierra Wireless and AT&T, Chester County considered a dual cellular network solution. With the support of both vendors, the Chester County team performed detailed coverage testing and, with minor updates, determined the AT&T network would provide complete coverage throughout the county.  Plus, because the communications platform supported dual carriers, the county could evolve to FirstNet when it was available. Chester County could implement a brand new, state-of-the-art cellular communications solution that would evolve alongside future technological advances. After considering all the benefits, Kagel was convinced that a dual network cellular solution was the best choice for Chester County. 

How Chester County Future-Proofed Its Emergency First Responder Communications System 

Chester County deployed the Sierra Wireless Mobile Gateway, AirLink® Mobility Manager, and AirLink Connection Manager. These, combined with an AT&T data plan, offered Chester County the most benefit from the latest technology. The system was deployed in 650 vehicles over about 10 months.

The county saw an immediate improvement in EMS dispatch speed and connectivity. Dispatchers and first responders could contact one another more quickly and get to the scene of the emergency more efficiently, which helped save lives. Responders could navigate routes more accurately, while receiving updated information about the situation en-route. The system also supported other useful applications, such as license plate readers that automatically check the number on passing plates and PennDOT image returns. The new system supported far more than just text communications. Chester County could use the system to check records, keep track of first responders and support platforms for dispatchers, allowing them to get in touch with emergency service personnel in an instant. These features could be easily managed by one all-encompassing management system.

The Future of First Responder Communications 

The benefits of Chester County’s new system don’t end there. The system is also compatible with FirstNet, making compliance simple once the new network is implemented nationwide. Other features like improved photo and video services, biometrics and sensors, voice over LTE and telemedicine will also be possible using the same communications platform. In this sense, Chester County has future-proofed their services, and the community will enjoy long-term use of their system, even as new technology becomes available. This is a system that can evolve right along with the ever-changing communications world. 

Start with Sierra today to find out more about the system that Chester County used and whether this system would work well for your community’s Emergency Services division. Our expert staff can propose the best solutions to ensure that your services are optimally streamlined and reliable. For more information, you can also watch our webinar, Transforming Public-Safety Communications with a FirstNet-Ready Solution – Chester County Story, on first responder communications solutions.