Better Tracking of the Thin Blue Line
Civilian emergency agencies tap one-time military exclusive technology to provide better situational awareness.
A crowd nearing 1 million strong masses downtown for a planned protest. The tension between protesters and law enforcement is palpable as the demonstration’s rhetoric is heated and bitter. Unexpectedly, the crowd shifts its location without first responders able to take immediate notice. Then it is too late. By the time officials note the crowd has moved, law enforcement and others are unable to reposition forces and preemptively hold back the horde from erupting into violence.
Similar scenarios have played time and again of late on nightly news broadcasts, serving as a motiving factor in part for emergency service departments across the United States to seek out and deploy one-time military technologies for civilian use. Surplus mine-resistant ambush personnel carriers, high-powered rifles and grenade launchers today grace the inventories of police departments as agencies acquire equipment the military no longer needs or wants. High-technology systems are no exception.
Just as soldiers on a battlefield use technology to pinpoint locations of friend and foe, emergency service agencies are equipping departments with the Blue Force Tracking capability as state and local governments seek to improve situational awareness. Administrators can monitor via computer screens the distribution of the police force and emergency responders and ensure assets are distributed proportionately and precisely where needed. “Currently, it’s all done via radios or eyewitness. Someone says the crowd is moving, you have to track where they are using pretty rudimentary technology,” explains Kevin Kelly, CEO of LGS Innovations, which researches, develops and deploys networking and communications solutions for government and commercial organizations. “In all fairness, there is limited adoption of military technology for use in the civilian sector to date, but there’s much anticipation about future adoption of those technologies. One of the most valuable features that companies like ours developed for the Defense Department to use in the battlefield environment is the ability to identify friend and foe and to geolocate like elements of people, groups of people.”
Researchers can modify battlespace technology, turning to modern commercial know-how to speed up the migration of formerly military-centric capabilities to the realm of first responders, allowing emergency service agencies for example to differentiate firefighters from state police from National Guard. “It can be used for deployed forces in a disaster scenario or a fire fighting scenario or a search and rescue scenario,” Kelly explains. “We’re taking the geolocation data that we all took advantage of commercially, apps like ‘Find My Friends’ and Facebook and some of the social media apps that track your location, and we’re taking that location data and transporting it into an application that’s used for first responder purposes.” Emergency service personnel now can use that information to track their own individuals or to separate known from unknown people in a large crowd.
In the military arena, the technology began as the radio-based Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2) system, first fielded in 2000 to the 4th Infantry Division based at Fort Carson, Colorado. The Army ramped up fielding the technology for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. By then, a satellite version of the capability, known as Blue Force Tracking (BFT), was incorporated. “Similar to the Global Positioning System (GPS) found in today’s commercial vehicles, the capability allows soldiers to track the locations of friendly and enemy forces over a topographical map,” explains Josh Davidson, deputy director for congressional and public affairs for the Army’s program executive office, command, control and communications-tactical (PEO C3T). “The friendly forces appear as blue icons and are updated via Global Positioning System technology, whereas the enemy red icons are updated manually by users. The GPS technology allows users to track the movements of other platforms that have the capability as they move throughout the battlefield. The FBCB2/BFT was developed by the Army, based on a requirement to diminish the ‘fog of war’ for soldiers by improving situational awareness on the battlefield.”
The system can track more than humans, as users can plot or note locations of hazards such as bad bridges, minefields and explosives. Additionally, soldiers use the chat feature to communicate via text. In recent years, the Army fielded additional versions, such as the BFT 2 with enhanced satellite capability and Joint Capabilities Release (JCR) with enhanced software. JCR uses the BFT 2 network, which can handle significantly more data than the first BFT with a capacity that increases the frequency and amount of message traffic going across the system. In many cases, the improvement cuts the system’s refresh rate from minutes to seconds, Davidson says. Today, the service upgraded and uses satellite-linked situational awareness data and easy-to-use battlefield chat rooms on what is called the Joint Battle Command-Platform (JBC-P). “The latest incarnation of the capability … brings a faster satellite network, secure data encryption and Marine Corps interoperability,” Davidson continues. “The JBC-P also incorporates a Google Earth-like interface and real-time chat rooms so soldiers can quickly zoom in to view precise locations, use icons to pinpoint [roadside bombs] on a map and use instant messaging to call for medics. Today, the JBC-P delivers data to the dismounted soldier through the Army’s handheld mission command system, known as Nett Warrior.”
The JBC-P is part of the Army’s Project Manager Mission Command portfolio and upgrades earlier versions. Soldiers with combat experience battle tested the upgraded capabilities at the Network Integration Evaluation events at Fort Bliss, Texas, and White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. The newer capabilities are integrated in more than 130,000 platforms and fielded to every brigade combat team in the Army. Additionally, the 101st Airborne Division and U.S. Africa Command and supporting units recently used the technology to track air assets in support of the Ebola response effort in West Africa. In the future, Army leaders want the JBC-P to serve as the foundation for the Mounted Computing Environment, which will deliver Android-based warfighting apps as part of the Army’s new common operating environment.
“As soldiers look at new capabilities, and ask for apps, it is critical for us to evolve the network continuously to meet these young soldiers’ expectations,” Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Hughes, USA, the service’s PEO C3T, offers in an Army statement. “As we move out of a static environment like we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan to more mobile and expeditionary operations, these soldiers’ input into our future warfighting capabilities is critical.”
Foreign military sales of the capability mean coalition nations that partnered with the United States for the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq share the battlefield technology—now making the transition to civilian emergency agencies in the United States. The BFT is expected to be a part of the First Responder Network Authority program, better known as FirstNet, a federally led endeavor by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to serve as a wireless public safety broadband network and provide better communications technology for police, fire and rescue personnel. However, some agencies are not waiting on the rollout and already want to begin using the BFT. “That’s one of the first [capabilities] that first responders are taking advantage of today. They don’t have to wait for FirstNet to do that,” Kelly states. “This data is available on the commercial networks today. But certainly in the FirstNet scenario, as we talk about a separate 4G network for first responders, that’s a primary application.” Under the program, first responders would have smartphones and access to basic wireless data services via a dedicated span of spectrum. Officials are seeking help from private industry to build and manage the system, consisting of a terrestrial LTE network and satellite systems.
Civilian emergency services also want to poach overhead video capabilities from the defense menu. “Again, something we take advantage of in the commercial world, such as doing a FaceTime session with your family as you’re traveling, is also very useful in evidence discovery and intelligence gathering,” Kelly mentions. With eyes in the skies, a whole command center of analysts can view live video streams of a crime scene or disaster zone and provide real-time analysis. “This is something that has never been enabled prior to the use of 4G technology in a first responder environment.”
For now, economics and politics prove the major stumbling blocks toward full implementation of the FirstNet endeavor, first established by Congress three years ago. “We’re wrestling this on a legislative basis to use overhead assets, drones, for situational awareness, for signal propagation analysis, for overhead imagery,” Kelly says.
Five years ago, LGS Innovations helped develop a pilot 4G LTE system for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the Hawaiian city of Hilo, demonstrating the simplicity of use and the intuitiveness of the deployed capabilities such as live stream high definition video cameras, tsunami warning, agriculture and crop harvesting cameras, speed sensors and drug interdiction sensors. “We overcame the technology barrier a long time ago. … I think the economy is one of the biggest barriers,” Kelly says. Commercial applications are affordable when developed for an anticipated millions of subscribers. It is trickier to keep costs down when developed for government agencies. “In a warfighting scenario, the [Defense Department] asks you to bid it knowing how many users. They’ll say 300 users. Give me a price for designing and building and deploying the system and you take that into account. I have to amortize the cost of 300 deployed units. You give them the price and they go to Congress, funds get appropriated and a contract gets awarded. State and local level governments ... don’t have those kinds of budgets. They really need to take advantage of each other and really need to buy as if they were one entity. Currently, there is a political battle, which is the number two challenge.” While a FirstNet effort means officials could purchase technology and assets in bulk, thus minimizing the cost, tight budgets and political wrangling stymies headway. “I don’t want to minimize either one; they’re both significant, but they’re not technological challenges,” Kelly asserts. “On a political level, how do you get the governor of Wyoming to agree with the mayor of New York and the city leadership in Charlotte—all on the same technology and the same functionality and the same data sharing schema? It’s a very difficult problem at the political level and one that we advocated a long time ago that the federal government just take a leadership role and stop trying to negotiate locale by locale. It’s, in my opinion, a little bit of a fool’s errand. You can do that for the rest of your life, and I’m not convinced you’ll ever achieve the result you want.”
And there is the issue of control, he adds. “Who’s going to control the network? Before I turn off my push-to-talk radios, is this network going to have continuous availability? Are you guys going to be taking it down for maintenance? Do I have control over when that maintenance is done? What happens to my data if I’m tracking northern border crossings? Is it owned by a specific agency? If there is a terrorist watch list, are my police officers, who do not carry security clearances, are they going to have access to that same terrorist watch list?”