Public safety operations have long depended on reliable communications, and that has traditionally meant using land mobile radio (LMR) systems. LMR has served first responders well, and there is little doubt that it will continue to play a significant role for several years to come, but emerging technology is introducing new and powerful capabilities that provide real-time, over-the-top (OTT) communication between individuals and teams without regard to the geographical limitations inherent in LMR operations.
Taking PTT into the Mobile Era
A leading innovator in providing OTT options to public safety is Orion Labs, a San Francisco-based company. The founders of Orion, Jesse Robbins and Greg Albrecht, were inspired by years of experience using push-to-talk (PTT) radio systems while volunteering in the fields of fire and EMS as well as participating in disaster relief operations. Both are well known for their pioneering work in the area of cloud infrastructure, and this unique combination of first responder exposure and extensive tech experience motivated them to establish Orion. The company has already garnered multiple industry awards for its products centered around PTT communications operate on virtually any data network, including cellular and Wi-Fi, and integrate with existing LMR systems.
The Orion Voice Platform lets the user set up talk groups that can support day-to-day routine operations or quickly configure a group to meet an evolving situation, such as a large incident involving multiple agencies. Communications are protected by advanced encryption, and the Orion Command Center offers centralized, web-based management of the devices that can be directed from anywhere, including an in-field command post. This approach allows administrators and group leaders to easily set up groups, manage permissions and configure capabilities to meet the needs of the operation. Command Center also provides real-time location at a person level, and this same geolocation capability can be administratively extended to individual users on their smartphones.
Integrating Orion PTT with Galaxy Smartphones
Orion has worked extensively with Samsung to ensure seamless operation of the Orion app on Galaxy smartphones using a soft (screen-based) PTT activation or by using the Orion Onyx, a unique two-inch badge that is worn on or under clothing and can be activated with a simple push. The Onyx unit weighs a little over one ounce and uses Bluetooth LE to wirelessly pair with a Galaxy smartphone. It’s powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion polymer battery and has a headphone jack to facilitate discreet communication if desired.
Samsung’s DeX platform makes it possible to use a Galaxy smartphone as the functional equivalent of an in-vehicle computer. When DeX is paired with Orion, the PTT communication can serve as a complementary adjunct to an existing radio system, providing coverage where radio signals are minimal or nonexistent and making it possible to include personnel who either don’t have a radio or are outside the range of the agency’s LMR system (such as a commander at an out-of-state conference). For a small agency or specialized unit that does not have an existing LMR network, a DeX in vehicle unit equipped with Orion could provide a secure and cost-effective two-way communication system.
Orion is also working closely with Samsung to develop an app for Tizen, the operating system for Samsung’s Galaxy Watch line. Wrist-worn wearables present some new and exciting use cases for public safety, and adding the potential for discreet, PTT communication will make them even more compelling for in-field deployments.
Another area with great potential is the 3D location work that Orion Labs is doing in conjunction with Polaris Wireless, the provider of software-based location solutions that operate on Android devices. With 3D location, first responders will have an awareness of the traditional “x” and “y” location coordinates as well as the elusive “z” factor that deals with altitude. Combined with OTT, the resulting platform is truly universal, enabling applications to locate any device on any network. This is a completely new technology and the work will result in providing specific officer locations within high-rise buildings, an operational capability long sought by first responders.
Mobile PTT and Computer-Aided Dispatch
Most public safety agencies rely on computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems. Communications capabilities and location awareness are integral to an effective CAD system. In order to meet the needs of public safety, Orion engineers have been working closely with RapidDeploy, an innovative cloud-aided CAD provider that is also a key Samsung partner. This three-way collaboration bodes well for forward-thinking public safety leaders who want to leverage technology in a cost-effective, force-multiplying fashion.
Artificial Intelligence and Translators
It’s clear that Orion brings a whole new paradigm to public safety operations, and there are other areas under development that will undoubtedly generate interest among those public safety practitioners who are willing to challenge conventional thinking and pursue new opportunities. Orion has designed their application to take advantage of artificial intelligence (AI) to activate customized, user-specific operations. It starts with a specific, predetermined phrase (e.g., Code Blue) which is designated to initiate a specific action or series of actions. When the phrase is detected, those actions are automatically triggered. Actions could include sending emails or texts, activating equipment, initiating a log, querying a resource (e.g., vacancies at a facility) or implementing enhanced security protocols.
Orion has also built a product called Translator, which, as the name implies, is intended to serve as a real-time translation device for speech communications between two parties. Currently, it works seamlessly between English and Spanish (or vice versa), and Orion says it has the capability to work with more than 60 languages. Given the communication challenges often faced by public safety personnel, this type of technological assist could be a game changer.
In the future, Orion users may be able to utilize Bixby, Samsung’s voice assistant, to permit real-time intelligent agents to interact with first responders using their voice. An Orion PTT user would be able to call up any number of Bixby Capsules to connect to different backend systems and complete tasks in a heads-up environment. Orion’s integration with the Bixby platform highlights the huge potential for AI to support first responders in the field.
Orion’s innovative use of OTT communications gives public safety agencies powerful communication options that were not previously possible, especially when used in conjunction with existing LMR systems. Talk groups can be of any size and include participants in areas outside normal radio coverage. Communications are encrypted and can work via soft or conventional PTT activation. The AI potential is significant, paving the way for automated, multifaceted processes that would otherwise consume the time of staff who are dealing with other priorities.