In January 2020, a plastics plant exploded in Houston leveling a building, scattering debris and causing two fatalities. Residents across the city felt the blast and responders rushed to the scene. In events like this, those who protect and serve need the right tools to get the job done while keeping communities—and themselves—safe. Communications, for instance, is key, and the need for a low-cost, text-based messaging platform for public safety professionals has never been as urgent as it is now.
In response to the plastics plant explosion, responders in Houston did have such a platform—the Bridge 4 Public Safety (Bridge4PS) app, a free, interoperable, secure collaboration app that is now available for authorized response personnel. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) developed this app in partnership with the Mobility 4 Public Safety (M4PS)—a consulting firm that specializes in regional, interoperable mobility strategy and public safety collaboration.
In Houston, immediate communication allowed responders to organize and disseminate information, including field notes, photos and video, from various sources. The use of the app to organize and log clearing neighborhoods and to significantly reduce radio traffic was instrumental in the team’s response to the emergency.
This real-world example in Houston is what S&T envisioned when it began efforts to develop a secure, interoperable platform for responders.
Developing a Mobile Solution for Public Safety
Various free and subscription-based mobile apps of this kind have been available to the general public for some time. However, such technologies lack security and enterprise features and therefore are less than ideal for public safety use.
“All public safety personnel should be able to immediately and securely communicate during response efforts,” says Norman Speicher, S&T’s Program Manager for Bridge4PS. “But without regional coordination and strategic planning, public safety faces a high risk of adopting non-interoperable and incompatible mobile data systems.”
Additionally, most organizations have been unable to cover the cost of deploying devices department-wide. To address this significant gap, S&T’s Mobility Acceleration Coalition (MAC) program funded Bridge4PS in a joint effort to build a secure, sustainable public safety messaging and collaboration tool.
Through the MAC program, S&T awarded a contract to M4PS to develop best practices for public safety adopting interoperable mobile technologies like Bridge4PS. MAC partners included various agencies across the Houston/Harris County and Los Angeles regions who came together to share lessons learned from their respective FirstNet Early Builder Programs (the testing, deployment and evaluation of mobile broadband technologies several years before the rest of the nation) in the areas of governance and end-user adoption.
“Through the MAC program, S&T has sought to foster strategic mobility planning,” said Speicher. “This includes the development of interoperable mobile data architectures, governance, and associated policies and procedures, with tactical use cases for functions specific to public safety. Bridge4PS is a testament to these efforts.”
M4PS worked with public safety leaders in both regions to develop strategic plans for the adoption of interoperable mobile data solutions, including specific pilot deployments to test the functionality and scalability of mobile technologies for public safety.
Meeting Diverse Needs and Requirements
Through the MAC program—S&T, M4PS and select localities were able to address operational communications gaps where other solutions fell short. The Bridge4PS app accommodates a diverse set of needs across public service organizations and jurisdictions and offers a degree of organization, continuity and efficiency superior to that of existing free and subscription-based apps. One shortfall of consumer apps used by public safety is that it can expose their personal phones to public records and discovery. Bridge4PS’s cloud-based data storage is fully compliant with transparency, retention and other legal requirements and mitigates the need for users to surrender their phones during an official investigation. Bridge4PS has also been designed from the ground up to provide a much higher level of security than consumer-grade alternatives.
The app contains a single nationwide directory of authorized public safety users and allows the rapid setup of channels for large user groups. Red Grasso, Program Director for State of North Carolina FirstTech, has found the directory to be the app’s “most powerful” feature. Other features include picture and file sharing, communicating with entire teams, and Secure Web Conferencing, which includes screen sharing.
For the responder community looking to adopt this application, careful planning, coordination and training are essential. In coordination with S&T, the M4PS team is preparing to provide training to new teams of users in the form of webinars and from within the app itself – using Bridge4PS’s Secure Web Conferencing feature.
Bridge4PS in Action
In addition to the plastics plant explosion in Houston, Bridge4PS was also deployed for CicLAvia, West Hollywood’s Carnaval festival, and the Los Angeles Marathon. The app’s interoperability was showcased during the marathon by providing real-time information sharing across 12 different organizations representing four jurisdictions. These events attract hundreds of thousands of attendees and require the deployment of hundreds of first responders.
As City of West Hollywood Public Safety Director Kristin Cook, Battalion Chief Brian Kane of the LA County Fire Department and Lt. William Moulder of the LA County Sheriff’s Department noted in a joint letter to S&T, mobile app adoption presents “a unique opportunity to strategically plan and coordinate to ensure interoperability across departments and jurisdictions…We firmly believe that it is in everyone’s best interest to coordinate rather than pursue fragmented product purchases.”
Bolstered by this support from the emergency management and first responder communities, S&T approved the expansion of the program beyond the Houston and Los Angeles areas in early 2020.
Other early successes of Bridge4PS involved various daily law enforcement operations. One example of the value of Bridge4PS’s seamless information sharing was demonstrated when the Inglewood (California) Police Department’s Special Enforcement Team apprehended a stalker intent on inflicting great bodily harm on the victim.
According to Captain E.M. Ridens, Patrol Captain with the Inglewood Police Department, “The use of the Bridge4PS app from officers not working, to the officers working at the time was a key component to the successful apprehension of this particular suspect.”
COVID-19 Response and Future Applications
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has given the need for an interoperable public safety communications tool added impetus. By streamlining information sharing within and across departments and jurisdictions, Bridge4PS has facilitated regional emergency management coordination in a time of rapidly changing policies and procedures.
As Niki Papazoglakis, Principal with Mobility 4 Public Safety and Director of Mobility Acceleration Coalition, emphasizes, “If you make sure that everyone you communicate with operationally has access and that you put some policies, procedures and use cases around it, you’ll have a transformational experience.”
In the coming months, Bridge4PS’s technology could aid in the response not only to the above types of situations, but also to natural disasters, such as wildfires, hurricanes and flooding. More information about Bridge4PS is available at: https://www.bridge4ps.com/. Authorized public safety personnel may request access to this valuable operational communications tool at: https://access.bridge4ps.com/.