LAPD mounted officer uses a two-way radio that hasn't changed much in four decades. Image via NoHoDamon (Flickr.com).
I can't begin to count the times police and fire personnel have asked me why their cell phones have thousands of applications, yet their radios have none. The simple answer is that we, as public safety professionals, have not required it. The more complex answer is that poor coordination and execution of public safety contracts has prevented it.
In the past two decades, public safety personnel have moved from using basic brick mobile phones to devices capable of running remarkable applications for any communications need. But public safety radios have not changed much in my 36 years of policing. Other than adding a two-inch LCD screen, the only dramatic change evident in current radio models is the price.
Why is this the case? And what can we do to change it?
Engineers tell me the only difference between a police radio and my cell phone is the network and standards on which they operate. Cell phones work on a worldwide network where published standards encourage competition and innovation to meet customer demand for service around the world. Applications are built under the same standards and allow us to do almost anything on our modern devices.
In the public safety radio business, two major Original Equipment Manufacturers (or OEMs) control 95 percent of the market, thereby determining accepted standards and applications.
I remember my first Motorola handset. I could drop it, kick it, even leave it on top of the car; and it just kept on working. But here's what I didn't know at the time: the OEMs' goal is to keep public safety agencies coming back to buy their radios. They build a system that requires their equipment. You've got to admit, it's a pretty clever way to maintain their predominant market share.
Today, the public safety community is beginning to see that open-architecture systems for hand-held radios are the only way to promote competition and get the applications we should have had years ago. While OEMs are starting to build radios to handle various frequencies on one radio, they've yet to open up their interfaces so as to provide a truly multi-vendor environment, and not leaving us dependent on the same OEMs.
Public safety agencies continue to put out requests for proposals (RFPs) specifying old technology and not demanding an open-architecture system that can handle the types of applications we really need. This is changing, but requires a unified effort by the entire public safety community to make it happen.
Demand the capabilities you need instead of accepting the status quo. Ask your leaders to give you the technology you need to get your jobs done right.