The number of wireless devices available to help first responders collect and share information during critical missions is steadily growing. Radio frequency (RF) interference, however, can disrupt first responder communications—especially during large multi-jurisdictional operations using multiple co-located transmitters. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) launched its Personal Area Network (PAN) program to address the problem and hosted an exercise from December 10-13, 2014, in Georgia, to evaluate progress to date.
Through its Small Business Innovation Research program, DHS S&T entered into a collaborative agreement with the Mercer Engineering Research Center (MERC) at Mercer University in Georgia. Under this agreement, MERC engineers provide unbiased engineering research, expertise in human factors, and access to training facilities for first responders.
The project’s scope includes study and analysis of the RF environment and the degrading effects of interference on voice, data and video wireless devices within the field of interest. The study requires a sufficient number of responders, outfitted with necessary RF-based equipment, working in a realistically sized and tactically correct staged event.
The scenario: Goals, participants and technology
MERC designed the exercise to evaluate the threat RF interference poses to mission critical communications devices and validate the data collection systems and research protocols it will use throughout the DHS PAN research project. More than 300 personnel from the Georgia Army and Air National Guard participated, supporting police officers, paramedics and firefighters from Perry and Warner Robins, Georgia.
The exercise scenario included a building explosion and collapse with indications of a chemical threat. The military personnel responded in full chemical personal protective equipment. To make the scenario realistic, multiple brands of equipment were deployed. Motorola portable radios and cell phones provided the primary means of mobile communications. A Raytheon ACU 5000 multi-channel interoperable gateway provided links between the command center and response personnel. Globe Inc. provided several participants with Wearable Advanced Sensor Platform systems, including embedded physiological sensors and TRX Systems location devices. Two Sotera Wireless, Inc. wireless vital signs monitoring devices added another emerging technology to the RF environment.
Success: Detecting devices and collecting
RF data MERC engineers positioned four RF sensor tripods and a master control tripod along the perimeter of the exercise area, a collapsed three-story building. The responder participants then entered the exercise area. Evaluators used Keysight Technologies hardware and software systems to monitor the desired RF spectrum and obtained a clear visual representation of all radio and wireless sensor activity. These results verified the equipment layout and the data collection capability of the RF sensors. MERC will analyze the collected data to support follow-on research activities.
Audio and video data identify human factors impact
MERC outfitted each team of participants with wireless microphones and videotaped their activities to determine the impacts of mental and physical fatigue, ambient noise and RF signal degradation on their ability to communicate and accomplish the mission. The Human Factors team also formally surveyed the participants about their experiences and will compare the survey results to the time-stamped audio and video data.
The PAN exercise was the first time a scenario designed to measure RF interference included enough appropriately equipped responders to generate sufficient RF traffic. It was also the first time that evaluators assessed the large scale the impact of human factors on critical communications. The results will guide the PAN program and help assure that first responders have access to communications equipment that enables them to perform safely and effectively to save lives and protect property.