WAKE FOREST – An initiative supported by the Wireless Research Center, Internet-of-Things firm Device Solutions, and other partners to upgrade the technology used by emergency responders and dispatchers to transmit and receive critical information is entering its next phase.

The project, which at completion will provide a new statewide digital paging system, now enters a testing phase for the prototype with a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The grant, awarded to Device Solutions, will support the applied research teams.  Collaborators on the project include Device Solutions, the Wireless Research Center, PBS North Carolina, and the North Carolina Department of Information Technology, NCDIT.

“Device Solutions is excited to be on the leading edge of ATSC 3.0 and partnering with the WRC to develop an end-to-end, portable solution for data-casting to first responders,” said Chris Lamb, CEO of Device Solutions, in a statement.

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The tech

Traditional paging systems are more than 70 years old.  And they operate in an ecosystem that hasn’t seen change since it was implemented.

A prototype of a new digital pager from Device Solutions.

But now, change is coming.  And it’s led by a shift in technology from analog systems to digital ones.  A prototype device built for the project by Device Solutions receives digital information transmitted over a new broadcast network that will soon reach statewide, with redundancy.

Emergency pages don’t work like that, today.  But that’s changing, thanks to the collaboration between the partners in the initiative.

“By and large, today, paging systems are agency by agency, by agency by agency,” said Paul Allan Sadowski, a senior engineer with the Wireless Researcher who is a co-inventor of the technology that is entering its testing phase.  “I would not be surprised if there are something like 600 agencies in North Carolina.”

And most public safety agencies, in the current system, each have to purchase and maintain their own paging systems, of which there are many available on the market.

But these existing systems operate using an installation on a 300-foot tower, said Sadowski, transmitting at 80 watts.

That means that the range of the paging systems just isn’t that far.  And the systems transmit information verbally, with information that can sometimes take up to a minute to relay.

This matters

In an emergency, every second counts.

Bob Witter, a co-founder of Device Solutions who is also a volunteer firefighter and first responder, told WRAL TechWire last year that the most important factor that predicts survival in a medical emergency is how quickly basic emergency assistance arrives at the scene.

In addition to designing a technology to reduce budget burdens for public safety agencies, Sadowski and the team designed one that uses information that can be sent digitally, including multi-media data such as text, location, or audio of an original call.

What’s the technology shift?  It’s coming from the use of new technology in television.  Known as Next Gen TV, or ATSC 3.0, the signal can do megabits per second compared to the thousand bits per second traditional paging systems allow.

“We’ll know which piece of equipment from which fire station, but now there can be much more information available,” said Sadowski.  “All this multimedia information, not just a bunch of tones and then a message with repetitious voice.”

Early tests have demonstrated that the digital system enhances response times by about 45 seconds, but in many cases, much longer.  And that is of huge value to the agencies and to the communities they serve.

“During large weather events or other disasters, having public TV ATSC 3.0 as a redundant data path will significantly improve the situational awareness of emergency responders, and provide a better means of communications between agencies,” Witter said.  “ATSC 3.0 has the capability to provide better communications to the public during emergencies.”

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Reliable, high-performing system

Television broadcast signals use high power transmitters and antennas on tall towers, buildings and mountains, said John Swartz, the senior engineer at the Wireless Research Center who is leading the organization’s government and public safety team.  These signals extend to a greater geographic footprint and can also penetrate buildings better than the existing conventional public safety paging systems.

By using the new Next Gen TV system, which is integrating internet technology into broadcast signals, the new digital paging system provides responders improved coverage, a faster dispatch time, improved situational awareness, and more.

The current Next Gen TV system is in the process of a statewide rollout with PBS North Carolina.  Capitol Broadcasting Company, the parent of WRAL TechWire, is a collaborator in the rollout of the Next Gen TV system in the Raleigh-Durham market.

“Paging Plus lays the foundation for a whole ecosystem of solutions that are better served by the unique attributes of ‘concurrent one to many’ TV broadcasting over high power, high tower transmission facilities,” Sadowski said in a statement.  “Not only can Paging Plus advance first responder communications, the technology can benefit cyber protection, flight safety, K-12 education, and more robust public service information.”

NEXTGEN TV Q&A: What it is, how it works, what viewers will receive, much more

Next steps

Now, the project is entering its testing phase.  New devices have already been developed, as has the software that will enable the system to operate.

“Network infrastructure and new devices for the new system have been designed are now being tested,” said Swartz.  “For the next phase of the initiative, the WRC and project team will seek a commercial partner to bring the new system to the market in North Carolina and beyond.”

The system is reliable, said Swartz.  ““From a public safety perspective, it’s really what you’d want.”

Next, Swartz and the team will use the prototypes to test the system.  That includes everything from calling in a report, the broadcasting of the paging alert and additional multimedia information, to the response procedures and protocols, said Swartz.

“That’s the goal of this phase,” he said.  “Right now, prototype pagers, prototype software, and we’re doing testing.”

It’s not yet a live system, but the collaborators are able to simulate reports and then activate the response system using the prototype technology of a typical 9-1-1 response.

Swartz told WRAL TechWire that the system could be operational to do live, over-the-air testing as soon as this year.

“The process has gone well,” said Swartz.  “It’s coming.”

Making Internet of Things even smarter is the focus on Morrisville firm Device Solutions