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DHS S&T works through possibilities and challenges of 5G adoption with first responders

The Department of Homeland Security’s science and technology directorate wants to help first responders realize the potential benefits of fifth-generation wireless communications and avoid the challenges associated with relying on more interconnected, digital technologies.

Sridhar Kowdley, program manager within DHS S&T for communications and networking technologies, said there’s an imperative to roll out 5G responsibly, whether it’s working with DHS sub-components like Customs and Border Protection or local first responders.

“We have a need to roll this out in a responsible manner to make sure it’s secure, safe, available, and we can extract the goodness of these technologies without exposing ourselves to vulnerabilities and risk,” Kowdley said in an interview.

With 5G offering big increases in bandwidth along with reduced latency, Kowdley said DHS S&T is examining its potential for augmented reality and virtual reality training, as well as the “massive integration of devices and sensors.”

But as the directorate rolls out additional capabilities to first responders, Kowdley said a key question is how more data and connections can offer benefits without hampering the mission.

He offered the example of Next-Generation 911. Many states and localities are already transitioning to the new Internet Protocol-based systems. They will accept not just voice calls, but photos, videos and text messages.

“The telecommunicators that handle calls, they’re basically traumatized with handling calls to begin with, but now imagine they’re getting video and text and images and multimedia feeds,” Kowdley said.
“We also need AI at that edge to start looking it and processing it. Can we extract metadata and only give them the bare minimum or deliver the video content in a very concise and efficient manner that it doesn’t overwhelm them or overload them?”

Kowdley said DHS S&T was working on that issue with the Department of Transportation.

The directorate also partnered with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to develop an AI application called the “Assistant for Understanding Data through Reasoning, Extraction and Synthesis” or “AUDREY.” It helps deliver relevant data to first responders depending on the emergency scenario.

“It would learn that, oh, you’re a fire, so I don’t need, a person of interest,” Kowdley said. “I’m more worried about other chemical devices that are triggered . . . where are the exit points?”

One of DHS S&T’s key partners is the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Kowdley said. The directorate is working in tandem with CISA to work through security and resiliency issues of 5G networks, where more devices and data can yield a larger attack surface.

Next year, Kowdley said S&T is working with CISA and other partners to test out the response to a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack on first responder communications and other commercial technologies.

“We’re bringing a whole bunch of responders to say, ‘Okay, how do you make yourself more resilient?” he said. “Whatever we learn will not only help during interference situations, but also in general situations, like how do you build resiliency for a Super Bowl event? You have to develop your primary and alternative contingency and emergency plans. So we’re sort of educating them. And we’re partnered with CISA to do that.”

With organizations from different jurisdictions bringing an increasing amount of devices and sensors to emergency scenarios, Kowdley is also keenly focused on interoperability. DHS put out an integration handbook recently to provide guidance on how to develop technologies using common standards.

“What we can’t have is every jurisdiction go off on their own and not have access to all the data that could potentially be available,” he said. “So interoperability and compatibility are going to be key moving forward, leveraging existing assets for efficiencies and deployment scenarios. Those are all key drivers for DHS S&T.”

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