Next Generation Public Safety Communications is a High Priority for Houston

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Next Generation Public Safety Communications is a High Priority for Houston

By Mae Kowalke, TMCnet Contributor

It might be an understatement to say that Harris County in Texas takes its public safety first-responder communications seriously.

The county, which encompasses the fourth largest city in the United States, Houston, also is home to the country’s petrochemical industry. The county also is no stranger to natural disasters.  Hurricanes are common for the area, and big one named Hurricane Ike ripped through the region in 2008. In fact, Hurricane Ike was the third most costly storm in U.S. history, and $60 million has gone toward the recovery effort with another $100 million committed for the future.

As a result, natural disaster communications for enabling not just fast response during a crisis but also for preparations and dealing with the aftermath has been recognized as a top priority. The county believes that to best protect its citizens and give first-responders the capabilities they need to work in a high-performance manners is to have a communications network that is second to none. A next generation public safety communications network is the one thing they know they cannot do without when a natural disaster strikes. 

LifeTalk.JPGSource: Alcatel-Lucent LifeTalk e-Zine

“Communications is the single most important factor – the most critical element during emergencies and disaster situations,” Mark Sloan, Harris County’s emergency management coordinator, said in another recent LifeTalk  article, Harris County: Investing in Communications to Protect Millions of Texans. “It’s something that we focus on and realize is critical to our partners. Timely, accurate information and warnings to allow people to take the appropriate actions, and then manage recovery, help us fulfill our responsibilities to protect property and saves lives.”

But having a good first responder communications network is not easy for the county. It is a big challenge. In fact, its natural disaster warning and response communications system includes communicating with more than 4 million residents, 34 jurisdictions, 54 fire departments and 125 law enforcement agencies.

The county relies upon a digital microwave radio network that has a fully redundant core topology based on Internet Protocol and Multi-Protocol Label Switching (IP/MPLS), according to the blog post profiling the network. If an outage happens anywhere in the network, traffic is automatically rerouted over an alternate network path, providing those numerous governmental departments and partners with resiliency, flexibility and expandability.

The county works hard to stay up on the latest technology, knowing that the pace of innovation gives it an opportunity to always up its game.

“We continually look at where the county stands in terms of technologies that are being utilized, the enhancements that have been created in the marketplace during that budget cycle,” Sloan said. “We then determine where we’re going in our three- to five-year strategic planning processes. We want to make sure that we’re getting the value that we need, and that we’re dealing with our trusted partners who have developed technologies for many years and work with us on a regular basis.”

For instance, Houston and the Greater Harris County 911 network at one point asked if they could be a part of the county’s microwave tower system. They worked to understand the needs, and then increased bandwidth in order to partner with the rest of the region as the system was building out. It ultimately made the county’s first responders communications network more efficient. Each agency saved significant amounts of money while expanding their coverage.

“Technology is essential in everything that we do today,” Sloan said. “We can’t do our job without it, so we need to work with our vendors to identify solutions, both now and in the future, that make sense for emergency response and disaster recovery. We need to lean forward together to identify those future challenges.”

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