Mobile Devices

5G for first responders

06 July 2023
Several new projects have emerged to take advantage of 5G’s benefits for first responders to help accelerate healthcare in emergency situations. Source: ArtisticOperations/Pixabay

Since its inception, using 5G for first responders has been a big focus for new applications. Early research was done by Verizon and other telecoms into using the cellular network to help enable faster connections to accelerate healthcare in emergencies. Where are we now? How far has this technology come and where will it go in the future?

The job of first responders is to manage mission-critical situations involving human lives, from medical emergencies in cities — pandemics, multi-vehicle accidents, gang warfare — to the treatment and evacuation of victims of natural disasters, sometimes in remote areas where local lines of communication are poor and medical facilities are thin on the ground.

The main challenges for first responders are to have access to situational-awareness data, be able to communicate with colleagues — like the central command center and destination medical facilities — and to provide immediate medical support to injured patients.

5G capabilities valuable to first responders

5G offers the capability to connect the vast number of people and devices associated with a disaster situation in a mesh-like construct or architecture that is reliable and super-resilient, is fast, is characterized by low latency, is expandable and can support a variety of communication services.

Typical supporting technologies in 5G applications include enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) that facilitates wide broadband coverage, massive machine type communications (mMTC) that underpins the connections of internet of things (IoT) devices and ultra-reliable, low-latency communication (URLLC) that supports the real-time control of devices like robots and drones.

Where speed, low latency and reliability are of the essence in real time, 5G has the potential to support these requirements with download speeds of 10 gigabits per second (up to 100 times faster than 4G) and a latency rate as low as 1 millisecond.

(View details of 3GPP’s 5G standard here.)

What is the 5G first responder ecosystem?

The 5G ecosystem that supports medical and disaster first responders is an application of the internet of everything (IoE) model. Cisco defines IoE as the intelligent network connection between people, things, data and processes, in contrast to the IoT, which is concerned primarily with data exchanges between physical objects.

In the first responder landscape, examples of people are first responders and patients; of things are connected ambulances and medical sensors; of data are streaming video and patient information; and of processes are telediagnostics and sending drones with medical supplies to an emergency scene even before first responders arrive.

Technical elements of the 5G first responder model

Advanced functional capabilities — In research paper for Arkansas Tech published on LinkedIn, Sean Montgomery, an emergency management specialist, talks about four top technological capabilities 5G offers for emergency response: the resolution of communication disruptions, remote sensing, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and advanced warning systems.

Communication disruption — Montgomery cites the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami as an example of where the breakdown of network infrastructures hindered communication between emergency services and resulted in the failure of alarm systems and the inability to communicate effectively with the community. Low band 5G could have sustained and extended network connectivity, saving lives.

Remote sensing — Using crowdsourcing power, remote sensing techniques could create disaster projection models before the fact and map disaster scenes after the fact, for example by contributing high definition (HD) videos to emergency operations centers. He uses the example of the MyShake earthquake early warning app, which automatically alerts researchers about unusual seismic activities. Low-power WAN (LPWAN) sensors complemented by 5G increase the possibility for remote sensing over wider areas at a lower cost.

UAVs — An expanded IoT network will enable massive data gathering for first response teams by 5G-enabled UAVs.

Advance warning systems

5G enables the dissemination of public alerts issued by first responders not only on phones but on public billboards and to smart homes and autonomous vehicles, increasing the coverage of disaster notifications and utilizing location data to zone in on affected areas and customize alerts for individuals, for example by providing directions about where to go in an emergency.

Advanced network performance

The requirements for the effective use of 5G in emergency response scenarios relate to using complementary technologies to improve network performance. According to the European Emergency Number Association (eena), a non-governmental organization concerned with safety and security, this will include lower latency, connection density and 5G spectral efficiency.

These features will support first responders by improving response times in emergency scenarios and enabling medical personnel to monitor and treat patients in situ, for example by using wearables to transmit real-time video feeds about a patient’s condition and allow doctors to perform some procedures remotely through 5G links to emergency command centers.

These benefits include:

  • Low latency
  • Connection density
  • Spectral efficiency

Emergency response 5G initiatives

Numerous companies are teaming up with global researchers and national organizations to create products, services and one-stop 5G solutions to support first responders.

Verizon created one of the first adopters of 5G networking. In 2021, Verizon unveiled its Tactical Humanitarian Operations Response (THOR) command center vehicle with a 5G ultra-wideband network sitting on a multi-access edge computing (MEC) platform. MEC enables the efficient use of radio access networks (RAN) at the outer reaches of a network, for example an emergency scene. RANs are connection points between end user devices and an operator's network, like a medical network, enabling the sharing of voice, video streaming, data and other over the top (OTT) media that can be made available directly over the internet and can support local data access where necessary to protect patients’ privacy and data.

Just last year, Intel along with Pegatron deployed a portable 5G network solution for Taiwan’s emergency firefighters. In Hsinchu, the 5G-in-a-box device addresses the challenges firefighters have had maintaining connectivity in remote and mountainous regions.

The device is small and light enough (about 40 lbs) to be carried as a backpack and uses a satellite dish as backhaul to establish a network connection. It's able to deliver up to a gigabit per second of throughput for up to 32 connected devices as a default. Up until 2022, firefighters used walkie-talkies.

T-Mobile has a different, complementary, approach, focusing on digital mobility for individuals in the fields of disaster management, emergency response and law enforcement. The Connecting Heroes solution is a suite of connectivity plans and Connecting Heroes-ready devices for eligible individuals and agencies. The Samsung’s IP68-certified phones and tablets are specially designed to operate in harsh conditions — for instance, they can survive half an hour in 5 ft-deep water — and offer unlimited 5G connectivity and priority access to the company’s networks.

A collaboration between the Lishui Branch of China Mobile Zhejiang Company Limited and Ericsson, the 5G Full-Closed-Loop system for Integrated Natural Disaster Management is a proactive disaster management approach that focuses on early warning disaster prevention and the management of a post-disaster emergency command center. The solution features portable (about 22 lbs) 5G sites and 5G-equipped vehicles to support first responders.

The technology makes extensive use of 5G drone-power, including drone-designed 3D models of potential disaster areas, and uses drones to video stream 5G-supported rich communication services (RCS) reports on relief efforts, and broadcast evacuation routes. The project was initiated due to the region’s susceptibility to natural disasters. The solution is extensible with the capability to plug in modules to customize it for different scenarios, for example firefighting in urban areas.

Research frenzy

THOR was not the only one of this type of initiative, but it spawned a frenzy of research, rival products and innovative ideas about how 5G would be able to not only support ground zero healthcare workers, but also emergency and disaster management infrastructure and services. These initiatives range from alerting operations centers about potential natural disasters like earthquakes to assisting medical personnel in performing telesurgery procedures and providing guidelines for designing smart ambulances.

Notably, in 2022 Bharti Airtel 5G-Connected Ambulance was developed and in the U.K. a prototype for the space-enabled Hybrid Connex Digital Ambulance of the Future was unveiled.

The focus in all three cases above was the streamlining of secure, unhampered connectivity features, like multiple SIM card management and sub-second network switching.

Researchers already have an eye on the potential benefits of 6G in the medical ecosystem, like environment sensing in an emergency situation, for instance by triaging the location of drones and other situation-relevant objects.

Holographic communication will provide additional somatosensory and haptic data that feed back tactile and other sensory perception information. This could enhance doctors’ ability to remotely diagnose patients and provide virtual touch-sensitive treatment. 6G in the future will enhance the capacity and coverage of IoMT networks using the ultra-high bandwidth of terhertz (THz) technologies.

The way forward

The burgeoning bag of disparate current initiatives suggests three additional benefits when building 5G first response solutions.

The first is a broad spectrum of customized innovation, from the ability to predict the possibility of a natural disaster to the use of robots to search for missing people, providing pre-hospital medical care and the possibility of rolling out 5G-in-a-box solutions for different requirements. The second is the impetus to improve and standardize current related technologies. The third is the opening of a window into the possibilities of 6G.

However, the technology is in its infancy; developing supporting infrastructure, replacing or upgrading old devices, and expanding network coverage in remote areas are likely to prove costly, and privacy and security issues have not been resolved.

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