The Importance of Public Safety Grade Applications
By John Knopf
Wednesday, September 11, 2019 | Comments

When bad things happen, we want good people on the scene as quickly as possible and for those people to have the right tools for the job. First responders have communications needs that include being able to receive calls, check maps and routes, download and upload various information, run several specific applications, and of course, communicate with their colleagues. This often has to take place while on the move and in less-than-ideal circumstances. Public-safety users cannot tolerate dropped calls or slow applications because of congested networks. The dedicated First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) exists to ensure that first responders can make calls and access the data they need, with the best cellular connectivity available.

The men and women who protect our communities and property use a wide array of dedicated equipment. These devices often run purpose-built applications that need to work in all conditions and on all networks. Equipment and systems are expected to remain operational during and following natural or man-made disasters anywhere in the country.

In the case of a first responder-centric network such as FirstNet, there’s an application ecosystem that includes key elements built by an active software developer community. Through FirstNet’s developer portal, developers can already find relevant application programming interfaces (APIs) and submit apps through a review process. The suite of applications in FirstNet’s App Catalog provides a substantial portfolio of tools that help users control their agencies, manage identities securely, and provide application security and privacy compliance.

To make the cut, these applications need to be robust and reliable. No small feat.

Some of the most popular solutions in public safety, such as in-vehicle cellular router solutions, have been architected and engineered to be incredibly reliable. In addition to this high bar for resiliency, public-safety workers need secure data tunnels to provide a persistent connection in often rugged or congested areas.

Another common requirement is for strong authentication, such as two-factor authentication (2FA) or multifactor authentication (MFA). In addition, the FBI’s Central Justice Information System (CJIS) has a separate layer of security requirements for accessing federal resources. Support for this can be helpful at the national level because historically there has been little consistency across U.S. cities, counties and states, where budgets and deployments vary enormously. And finally, some platforms may require different forms of authentication, such as active directory login, or biometrics, such as a fingerprint or facial scan.

A lot of what makes an application public safety grade is its ability to continue working flawlessly during anticipated times of peak load, which typically occur during an emergency when the network is congested or even failing because of damage. These are the times when priority and pre-emption can step in to help.

Priority moves first responders to the front of the line by prioritizing their network needs over non-first responders. Pre-emption takes that a step further by shifting nonemergency traffic to a different line, freeing up space for first responders to easily connect, particularly important when lines become congested.

On a more general level, applications can become public safety grade by meeting standards such as those set out in the international Common Criteria for Information Technology Security Evaluation certification. There are seven levels of Common Criteria, which certify agreed-upon security standards specifically for government deployments. Achieving Common Criteria not only shows that the software does what it claims to do but that it went through a rigorous development process.

At the end of the day, being on the front lines isn’t about computing; it’s about using the tools at hand to do a dangerous more job faster, safer and hopefully, more efficiently. Officers and first responders are the ones keeping communities safe, not devices or applications. The role of any application in a first responder’s hands is to do whatever it takes to enhance user experience without getting in the way.

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John Knopf is vice president of product management for NetMotion Software.

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