Mobile app enables push-to-talk for public safety during COVID

Healthcare workers in some cities can use the BeOn mobile app to access public safety networks. (L3Harris)

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced healthcare workers and public health officials to interact frequently with first responders and at times to act as emergency responders themselves. The crisis underlines the importance of smartphone push-to-talk capability, which FirstNet announced during Q1. But while the public safety industry has been waiting for FirstNet’s PTT, a smartphone app created by L3Harris has been filling the gap for some jurisdictions.

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In California’s Mammoth Lakes region, L3Harris’ BeOn app is helping healthcare workers communicate efficiently as they visit patients and trace contacts. Mammoth Lakes Fire Chief Frank Frievalt, whose teams were using the app before the pandemic, said extending the service to healthcare workers was an obvious choice. “With blinding speed and almost no cost you can build these detailed networks that don’t require frequency management or licensing or programming,” he said. “They’re just built as talk groups on the cellular side. A lot of it is involving a lot of people who don’t know how to use a radio. But they do know how to use their phone.”

L3Harris has made the BeOn app free for 90 days because of COVID-19. It enables encrypted PTT calls between multiple people using iPhones, Android phones, and/or L3Harris land mobile radios. The app allows users to connect via Wi-Fi or cellular, regardless of the carrier network. 

In Mammoth Lakes, L3Harris sales engineering manager Andy Bosshart said the company used an integration server to bridge the land mobile radios to the personal devices that access the network. “I can have users utilizing FirstNet, or AT&T commercial or Verizon all tunneling back to that same point,” he explained. “You would have a traditional EMT or first responder firefighter … using their regular radio. The user next to them could just be using their iOS device, and it becomes a ubiquitous experience between the two.”

In North Carolina’s Johnston County, emergency communications director Jason Barbour is using BeOn to support his team’s COVID-19 contingency plan. He said that if his staff needs to quarantine, calls will move to another call center, and his people will be able to stay connected “from anywhere that has Wi-Fi or cellular service.” 

L3Harris includes the app with its XL public safety equipment and also sells BeOn as a subscription through Raycom. Beyond the current crisis, the company hopes BeOn will enable public safety agencies to expand operations with minimal infrastructure investment. “Jurisdictions are looking for ways to expand their footprint in cost effective ways …  and that’s exactly what BeOn can do,” said L3 Harris Technologies VP Danielle Marcella. “It allows you to provide coverage to a device someone already owns without having to build the infrastructure that would support a traditional use case.”

Mammoth Lakes was using the L3Harris radio equipment with the BeOn app to expand its coverage area even before COVID-19. Frievalt said it enabled his agency to avoid the cost of building new VHF towers and also facilitated carrier site acquisition, since new commercial cell sites are also supporting public safety. He said the smartphone app is a good solution for a growing number of public employees such as transportation workers.

As FirstNet rolls out mission critical PTT, more and more public employees are likely to use smartphones to access public safety networks. The team at L3Harris expects BeOn to become part of the ecosystem that FirstNet is building. “Eventually BeOn will morph into a mission critical push-to-talk app, but until that functionality is available across the carrier networks, BeOn is the solution,” said Marcella. 

According to James Teel, director of product management for L3Harris’s public safety group, the app can continue to play an important role in emergency preparedness. “If I want to subscribe to AT&T’s PTT service … I don’t have easy interconnectivity or interoperability with a PTT user that’s running on a Verizon service, for example,” he said. “So BeOn kind of bridges the gap there.”