Hey ERIC, what's wrong with Transit and Public Safety?

In August 2010, the FCC invited nominations for participation in the Emergency Response Interoperability Center (ERIC) Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC). ERIC  was set up last April by the FCC to establish a technical and operational framework for interoperability of public safety networks using the 700MHz band, with input from the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice among others. The purpose of PSAC would be to recommend requirements and procedures for nationwide interoperability, security and reliability, as well as suggesting ways to strengthen collaboration between communication service providers and public safety entities for response procedures during emergencies. Given the important role that mass transit plays in secondary public safety response, it was clear to many that transit agencies should have a voice in PSAC. It came as a surprise, then, that when the FCC announced earlier this month the list of 26 appointees to PSAC, they comprised mainly fire, police and state agencies, with just one representative from AASHTO and not one from a mass transit agency. And while AASHTO does a great job, it’s hardly the mouthpiece for the mass transit sector. During the nomination period both APTA and the CTAA wrote to the FCC to champion input from the passenger transportation community, and recommend appointees – unfortunately to no avail. Under more scrutiny, ERIC appears to have a track record of under-utilizing the opinion of transit; last June it appointed 19 members of its Technical Advisory Committee , with just one transit authority aboard – New York City Transit Authority – and no representation from potential contributors such as APTA’s Wireless Communications Subcommittee. So what’s gone wrong? There’s no doubt that transit plays a vital role in public safety; terrorism often strikes at the heart of our day-to-day commute as horrifically illustrated by the bus and subway attacks in London in July 2005 that left 50 dead and hundreds injured, and by other attacks in Israel, Madrid, Moscow and Paris. Since 2001, more than 2,500 have been killed in outrages on rail and bus systems, and more than 10,000 injured. In many of these cases transit CCTV played a crucial role in how responders reacted, and how law enforcement later tracked and identified culprits. Meanwhile U.S. transit systems remain vulnerable and authorities are clearly concerned about copycat attacks here. A significant percentage of CCTV cameras in the United States are part of transit infrastructure; given the impetus behind getting live video feeds into first responders’ hands over wireless broadband networks, close collaboration on 700MHz utilization would appear to be essential. Core to the issue is that the FCC defines ‘pubic safety service providers’ as police, fire and emergency medical first responders – ‘blue light’ services. Transportation operators (unless private) are classified as state or local government entities that “do not provide for the safety of life, health or property.” However transport bodies such as APTA and AASHTO strongly disagree with the FCC’s definition, believing that transit agencies obviously meet these requirements in the preparation for an emergency response and in the recovery from a disaster; without their help and participation, police, fire and medical teams simply could not respond effectively. Perhaps the FCC’s reluctance to permit meaningful participation by transit agencies in ERIC is the continued misguided belief that, in fact, transit is not worthy of being a public safety player. Despite the FCC’s position, coordination on measures at 700MHz in spectrum specifically reserved for public safety applications makes sense. Such coordination today will mean a safer transportation environment tomorrow, and reduce emergency response times in the event of a disaster. APTA has been quick to point out that interoperability between radio systems, along with common infrastructure for supporting law enforcement resources, are key priorities for capital investment. Alas funding for transit police and upgrading of security systems is sparse – in fact “woefully below the levels we require,” according to Greg Hull, security director at APTA. As APTA President Bill Millar pointed out two years ago to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security , between 2001 and 2009 the federal government spent nearly $30 billion on aviation security while allocating just $1.4 billion for transit security. APTA has tried hard to work with the Department of Homeland Security on public safety issues but cites “strained relationships” that result in “delays, deferrals and duplication of effort,” according to Millar. Despite outreach from APTA and CCTA, and efforts to participate in ERIC’s committees, it appears the FCC has only minutely opened the door and for reasons known only to that august body, remains hesitant to embrace the mass transit community when it comes to matters of public safety. Fortunately it’s not all doom and gloom; wireless initiatives between public and private bodies are thriving and cooperation is positively encouraged. President Obama’s National Broadband Plan recommends efforts to improve utilization of existing communications infrastructure, and transit is already playing a role. In an industry where private sector roof rights are notoriously expensive and lengthy to acquire, service providers are encouraged to negotiate utilization of conduits and masts on transit agency property to reduce costs and ease deployment. An example of best practice is Clearwire and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, where the 4G service provider has been able to leverage agency communications infrastructure for 2.5GHz WiMAX base stations through a barter arrangement in exchange for wireless broadband services. This has led to a successful reduction in wireless OPEX for VTA in its efforts to deliver connectivity Wi-Fi Internet access to it fleet of light rail vehicles. Once again it seems that the real wireless success stories are between private and non-government organizations, where collaboration is driven by commercial relationships with an ease and agility that is painfully absent between the FCC and transit. Jim Baker is CEO at Xentrans Inc., a wireless project management consultancy based in San Francisco and London. A C-level wireless industry veteran, Baker has been involved in many deployments of wireless technologies on passenger transportation worldwide and is a recognized industry expert on Wi-Fi, 3G and 4G convergence. He is cChair of the Technology Committee at the Joint Council on Transit Wireless Communications that is developing a strategic plan for implementation of wireless technologies in mass transit. Contact Baker via LinkedIn.