High Availability for Public Safety

By Alex Kreilein

Availability is a core part of any good cybersecurity strategy. But for public safety and their operational requirements, the focus on availability is of paramount importance. But what goes into building availability is complex and requires us to really understand what availability means, how it can be lost or denied, and what public safety can do to embrace the concepts that support high availability. 

Often misunderstood, availability is more than just connectivity to a communications network. Availability is a composite of several functions from IT systems, applications, security and encryption, bandwidth supporting quality of service, and also connectivity. If any one of those components fail, availability can be lost. 

Broadly, there are two super classes of threats to availability: intentional and unintentional. Within those classes, availability can be lost because physical problems, human problems, and hacker problems. In order to successfully achieve high availability, we have to address each of these core risks and their causes. 

Physical, human, and hacker problems all rest on a common risk. Today’s CAD operations require public safety to put all their eggs in one physical basket. The more we can unpin CAD from physical locations, the more we can bring more resources to bare, the more we can then fight back against accidents and attackers that would otherwise compromise availability. 

The Physical Problem 

The threat to availability is deeply related to risks to physical connections. Both natural and man made risks threaten physical availability. Natural threat, such as a hurricane or earthquake, compromise availability by severing lines of communication. Certain man made threats fall into this class as well, such as backhoes ripping up conduit or destroying communications systems. This threat materializes far more often that people might expect. 

To manage these risks, PSAPs should consider having multiple lines and diverse communication to the PSAP as well as wireless connections such as FirstNet. But more than this, PSAPs must find a way to unpin their computer-aided dispatch from a single static physical location. High availability cannot be reached if mission-critical functions have no diversity or redundancy. For our part, RapidDeploy addresses this risk in a few ways. 

Through our partnership with AT&T and FirstNet, public safety can securely access RapidDeploy over any IPS connection or over a secured and prioritized wireless connection such as FirstNet. Our partners at Microsoft have also made ExpressRoute, a highly available and secure method of connectivity, available to RapidDeploy. This allows for RapidDeploy to connect directly into the PSAP over the Microsoft global network – not over the public internet – to serve up highly available and low-latency connections to support public safety.  Only a cloud-native provider can support these kinds of highly secure and highly available mitigations to address risks related to physical problems. 

The Human Problem 

The threat to availability isn’t just about wires and spectrum. It also comes from people who administer, configure, maintain, and operate IT systems. People, not technology, make or break systems. The risk is that of the capacity of staff who are continuously asked to manage an increasingly complex and ever-growing list of products and services – CAD being only one of them. 

The most common way for availability to be impaired or disabled is for a person to misconfigure a system.  Fat-finger errors, server or network misconfigurations, or application misconfigurations can easily disable availability. Even license renewal errors can take systems offline. In an on-premises world with limited resources, the only way to mitigate these common faults is to investments significantly in on-site support. But with tight budgets and a shortage of candidates, PSAPs around the country – just like other enterprises – are finding it hard to keep ahead of the curve. 

To mitigate these risks, PSAPs should consider software as a service (SaaS) products such as those offered by RapidDeploy.  In nearly all other enterprise environments – even other life and safety operations – SaaS plays an important role in addressing the human problems of availability. In partnership with Microsoft, which shares in the responsibility to deliver a world-class product, RapidDeploy has dedicated capabilities that work at scale to ensure security. By transferring the human problems associated with CAD management to teams like RapidDeploy, public safety can focus on what they do best: serve and protect. 

The Hacker Problem 

The final major class of threats to availability stem from intentional bad actors – hackers. Whether those are insider threats, hacktivists, or nation states, hackers are focused on compromising the availability of public safety operations such as 9-1-1. We’ve already seen TDoS attacks and ransomware increase in recent years.  With the move to end-to-end IP networks, public safety is about to experience a breadth and depth of attacks, such as availability attacks, that it has not seen before. 

Attackers seeking to deny service to a PSAPs today have an easy target.  PSAPs tend to lack bandwidth availability, redundancy and diversity, costly anti-DDoS infrastructure needed to mitigate risk.  Additionally, attackers using other methods for denial of availability, such as ransomware or other malware, have a serious edge up as few PSAPs have enterprise-grade cybersecurity teams on 24/7/365 alert.  The hacker problem’s mitigation lives within the answers to both the physical and human problems.  Today’s playbook is not able to yield the results mission-critical operations need. 

The answer is not found in a change of tactic – such as buying this security product or that one – but rather in a change of strategy. 

SaaS companies like us at RapidDeploy gain massive economies of scale and scope by working with managed services providers in the cloud like Microsoft Azure. We inherit many protections because of their expertise in network and systems management and products such as ExpresssRoute. Moreover, we partner with managed security service providers to deploy tools and procedures needed to harden the environment and managed it continuously. This strategy turns CAD from easy targets into a hardened attack surface that is difficult to exploit. 

A Highly Available Solution 

A CAD system is a mission-critical application and needs to be protected like one. From using the best-of-breed tooling to best-in-class partners, RapidDeploy has built its Cloud-Aided Dispatch in a highly-available manner that ensures the security and reliability of your CAD system. Those tactics are based on a broader and more important strategy. 

Today’s exploitation of CAD rests upon the exploitation of single points of failure inherent in on-premises deployments. The RapidDeploy architecture specifically is built with a completely different strategy – one that embraces high availability instead. That strategy is the key to addressing availability for public safety. 

For more information about keeping your system safe and available with RapidDeploy Cloud Aided Dispatch solutions, click here!

Lacey McDaniel