Planning Ensures Smooth Super Bowl Voice, Broadband Communications
Tuesday, February 21, 2017 | Comments

Public-safety communications planning for Super Bowl LI began a year before the National Football League’s (NFL) 2017 championship game and went almost as smoothly as the New England Patriots’ second-half comeback, according to city of Houston and Harris County officials.

The Houston Police Department’s Interoperable Communications Working Group averaged about 50 to 75 people at each monthly meeting. The meetings included in-depth planning with the host committee, wireless carriers and other stakeholders, said Tom Sorley, Houston’s deputy chief information officer (CIO) for public safety and chair of the working group.

Public-safety officials in the area use a 24-county Project 25 (P25) Phase 2 network for daily communications. Officials tweaked the network to allow some talkgroups that are normally active on only one part of the network to be active on multiple parts of the network during the event. Conversely, the reach of some talkgroups with larger coverage areas on a daily basis was reduced during the event to ensure effective traffic flow.

Public-safety officials worked with the FCC to perform a baseline RF test in the area where the Super Bowl Live fan event was held during the week leading up to the game. The only interference was between one of the wireless carriers and the media microphones, Sorley said.

The Houston Police Department loaned between 400 and 500 radios to federal and other officials who needed to communicate during the event, using four encrypted talkgroups. Network traffic increased about 20 percent during the game.

The only problems were when two user groups self assigned channels outside the 25-page incident radio communications plan (ICS 205) talkgroup and channel assignments. “We only had two instances of that, and both times we were able to solve those relatively quickly,” Sorley said. “It took months to prepare it, and because we were so intimate with it, everything went very well.”

In addition to voice communications, about 200 public-safety officials used broadband devices on Harris County’s public-safety early builder Long Term Evolution (LTE) network during the Super Bowl. The county deployed a small cell inside the stadium to increase coverage.

Based on lessons learned from previous events, the county identified the broadband users, and their needs drove the process. Public perception of a uniformed officer looking down at a device is negative, said Shing Lin, director of public-safety technology for Harris County. So undercover officers who wouldn’t look out of place with a smartphone used county-owned band 14 devices from Motorola Solutions and Sonim Technologies.

The phones were used during regular season football games to help the county refine its processes. For example, when someone identifies a suspicious package, they take a picture and submit it to the group. “So how do we escalate these things?” Lin said. “Who should I send it to? We spent three to four months tweaking the processes and training.”

Officers used an encrypted application called Moxtra that allows private or group chat and sharing images and files. Policy issues, such as who owns an image taken if there is an incident, were addressed before the championship game.

“A lot of the time spent early on was talking through some of these things,” Lin sad. “I think the law enforcement and public-safety community is willing and ready to embrace technology like this, but procedurally and from a policy perspective, there is a learning curve.”

Agencies broadcasted images to staff at the gates when small protests began. Users didn’t request push to talk (PTT) because they had P25 radios, he said. The LTE devices were also used as hot spots so officers could get on their laptops to do work.

“We implemented mobile device management,” Lin said. “We had one situation where we had to push out a new version of one of the mobile apps and having the mobile device management helped to identify the devices that needed this and more quickly pushed the update out. There are still some issues to resolve around identity, credentials and access management (ICAM).”

During the event, officers with smartphones identified a suspicious vehicle circling the downtown location. “They were able to capture an image and share the license plate of the vehicle,” Lin said. “One of our agencies … ran the plate, got the owner information, ran a driver’s license check and was able to share a picture of the suspect. As soon as they shared it, some of the officers that were inside the convention center saw the guy walk by, and they detained and questioned him, and he had an open warrant. This was over a two- to three-hour timeframe.”

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