As almost an aside to the conversations about 10-codes, politics and turf battles as they relate to interoperability, Harlin McEwen, vice chairman of the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council, sounded an ominous note about the lack of radio interoperability among first responders from different agencies and locales.
“You’ve got all these disparate systems – I don’t believe in my heart that’s ever going to be resolved,” he said. “There’s not enough money, and the problem is, what you change this year to bring some compatibility, next year somebody has a newer and better product.”
The problem isn’t the lack of technology from which to choose; in fact, plenty has been done in the interoperability arena in terms of solutions first responders can focus on without reinventing the wheel. The real need is for responders to take rising costs into consideration, as well as the ease of use, and look into forming partnerships with nearby jurisdictions that have already deployed solutions.
There are many considerations when procuring a radio system, and cost tops the list. Effective radio communication systems can be expensive, and many agencies and locales can’t afford the investment.
“For many years, radio systems were a pretty simple technology and lasted for a long time,” said Kevin Kearns, executive director of iXP Corp., based in Washington state. “It was not uncommon to see 20-year-old base stations in use, and mobile and portable radios at 10 to 15 years of age. The gear could be repaired by radio technicians as long as the parts were available, and that was typically a long time.”
That, however, has changed dramatically in the last decade.
“Systems are much more complex now and utilize expensive new technologies that have shorter life cycles,” Kearns explained. “Radio systems are looking more and more like IT systems, and some of the core components of the infrastructures have comparable life cycles. That shifts a significant capital expenditure burden on a jurisdiction that may be having a hard time just coming up with adequate funding for personnel and operating costs.”
Though the right technology is a bit of a moving target, it’s important to find out what interoperability investments have already been made, and consider partnering with another agency or locale, said Chris Essid, interoperability coordinator for Virginia. He said it’s critical to coordinate with other locales in the region to ensure that communications systems are interoperable.
“Many times systems are built 100 percent independently – without consideration of partnering with a nearby system that would create a larger footprint at a reduced cost,” he said. “I was in a meeting where a locality was going to build a system, but once they realized the state was building the same kind of system, they let the state use their frequencies in return for being able to become a primary user on the system. This resulted in millions being saved.”
Essid advises agencies to retain internal technical expertise when dealing with the vendors.
“Many times what you need is much different from what you are being sold, and localities can save millions on large systems by having some internal technical expertise to advise them.”
But if a certain project comes to fruition, technology costs could be mitigated.
A Cyren Call
The project in question – a nationwide, public-safety grade broadband network for emergency responders, built by commercial operators and shared with the government – is proposed by the co-founder of Nextel Communications, Morgan O’Brien, now co-founder and chairman of a company called Cyren Call.
The Cyren Call project would take an estimated 10 years to build at approximately $17 billion. It would use a block of 30 MHz in the 700 MHz spectrum band, which is to be auctioned off in 2008. The bill for the project was introduced by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in March, and would put the band spectrum in a public safety broadband trust.
Former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Tom Ridge urged the project’s creation, while McEwen said he’s intrigued by the idea, adding that the network wouldn’t be designed to replace traditional land mobile legacy systems, but could tie them together.
“You’d have nationwide, roaming, compatibility,” McEwen said. “And you’d have voice over IP [Internet protocol] backup to your traditional, more reliable voice systems.”
But the project has its critics, including senators, the FCC and telecommunications companies, who want to guard the spectrum and dislike the concept of having Cyren Call managing it.
McEwen said he hasn’t seen a better proposal for a nationwide system, and that it would be a relief to taxpayers, who’d otherwise have to pay for many more local systems. Critics, however, say users will still be on the hook for expensive proprietary handsets. Passage of the bill may be a long shot because Congress has a tendency toward wanting to sell spectrum commercially rather than putting it in a public trust.
In the interim, some states, such as Florida, are building 800 MHz radio systems through which public safety agencies statewide can communicate. Okaloosa County, Fla., is in the process of joining this system, and expects to go online in 2009.
The county is now working with 1970s architecture, but emergency workers, deputies and county workers all operate on different systems. Joining the state system will save the county the $10 million it would have spent to build radio towers. However, there’s still the cost of $600,000 for dispatching consoles, as well as startup costs for radios, which is expected to be $200,000. Sheriff’s deputies are expected to pay more than $500,000 for radio startup.
In Silicon Valley, a group of 30 law enforcement, fire and emergency medical agencies in Santa Clara County is developing a voice/data wireless system that was cited by the DHS as a “Best Practices” model for interoperability.
The system will rely on a microwave network, now being built, that will enable first responders to exchange voice and data. Another part of the area’s interoperability system is the Bay Area Mutual Aid Communications System (called BayMACS), which responders can use to communicate regardless of jurisdictional boundaries.
But because this system exists on a single channel, it would be easily overwhelmed during a catastrophe. The group is looking at a network-based VoIP radio solution to solve the problem.
The Gee Whiz Factor
The very mention of IP-based systems is the cause of many a furrowed brow.
“There are lots of gee whiz technology solutions that could help these folks in various parts of their jobs,” said John Clark, former deputy chief of public safety for the FCC. “But in terms of making sure they have real-time communications that might be the difference between life and death, it has to be with them in the tower, in their hands, on their belt, and it has to be seamlessly usable. In other words, it can’t require them to dial up channel 9; it’s got to be something that just happens.”
Some agencies are operating with legacy equipment that precludes them from considering interoperability with their neighboring agencies and jurisdictions.
“It’s pretty common,” McEwen said. “There are a lot of people around the country having problems because of their systems being old and needing replacement. Little by little they’re getting replaced, but it costs a lot of money to replace them.”
There’s not a lot of incentive, Clark said, for a local agency to break the bank to purchase technology for interoperability’s sake – for a catastrophe that may or may not happen.
“It’s the same problem they had in New Orleans,” he said. “How much money do you want to invest on a category 5 storm that you might not see in your lifetime?”
There’s another issue, McEwen said.
“Unless you have good communications within your agency to do your own job, you’re not going to be really enamored with, ‘How can I improve things to talk to my neighbors.'”
Gateways to Interoperability
Most of the time, Clark said, internal communications are all that’s needed. And interoperability can be achieved – and might have to be achieved – by use of gateway devices, McEwen said, like the Raytheon ACU-1000, which can be deployed quickly to connect disparate systems.
As Kearns said, these communications systems are prestaged and preprogrammed to allow quick deployment, but that takes prior coordination.
“At the strategic level,” he said, “you can utilize larger and more network-centric versions of these gateway technologies to link together dissimilar system infrastructures so that interoperability is essentially permanently in place and users of one system can talk with users on a linked system on a routine basis.”
Florida has used the ACU-1000 and other emergency deployable interoperable communications systems, in numerous situations.
“They are extremely useful,” said Silvia Womack, 911 communications chief of the Okaloosa County Department of Public Safety. “Any county in the state can request its deployment. It also can and has been deployed outside of the state for emergencies such as Hurricane Katrina. They have been used for every type of emergency – tornadoes, hurricanes, conferences, the Super Bowl and even the Space Shuttle retrieval mission.”
Learning From the ‘Amateurs’
Steve Rauter, former deputy chief of the Lisle-Woodridge Fire Department in Chicago and current 911 director, said he wants on-scene, off-network tactical radio solutions for most interoperability needs.
“My issue is in-the-hand tactical interoperability,” he said. “I want the technology in the hand – not at some controller far away or an IP-based system that is fairly brittle.”
There’s a time and place for the IP-based solution, he said, but not in critical, on-scene communications – at least not yet.
“Some of the military IP solutions are starting to come out,” Rauter said. “Those are in essence hardened; they’re encapsulated, meaning they’re not wide open to anybody who wants to smack into them.”
But as far as public safety is concerned, he said, the IP-based system hasn’t arrived yet. “I don’t want to have to wait and reboot my radio before I can go into a fire scene; that just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Some manufacturers sell radio systems and call them IP compatible when they’re really not, Rauter said. “Some of the bigger manufacturers, including some of the biggest, will tell you that they’ve got IP from end to end, which is completely false because the radio is not IP compatible – though they will tell you it is.”
He said public safety officials could take a page or two out of the amateur (ham) radio playbook.
“For at least 35 years, the ham radio community has enjoyed multiband, multimode radios, and we’re trying to migrate some of that technology to public safety,” Rauter said. “Give me a bag of them with some AA batteries, and I can deploy some folks to go do work. The technology lends itself to instantaneous work. You’re going to hear people opposed to that. They’re going to say that you need to bring in a full up trunk radio system to handle large emergencies, and there is some merit to that. But for the most part, for most of the country, a much less expensive methodology could be had.”
He said there are products available now that fill this need. Amateur radio units cost about $300, and it’s rumored that a couple of manufacturers will unveil new, multiband, multimode radios at this year’s International Wireless Communications Expo in Las Vegas.
“One of the manufacturers was talking about a military style or at least a migration from the military, that’s an intra-team radio that’s sometimes known as an MBITER radio that [covers] 30 MHz through 512 [MHz] continuous tuning with digital, analog, wideband, narrow band and encryption,” Rauter said. “That’s a standard-issue handy talky called a PRC-148.”
Read the Label
Some manufacturers are peddling Project-25 compatible systems that are advertised as interoperability solutions. But, Rauter said, it’s not that easy.
“Project 25 does not address the band issues,” he said. “Interoperability has to start with spectrum. Project 25 started out as a digital on-the-air interface, which they were fairly successful in implementing, but some of the manufacturers would put in proprietary options, which would make them nonstandard, meaning you can’t put Brand A on a Brand X system, and this has been a problem.”
Rauter said he’d like to see labels on these systems, much like the food label on a jar of peanut butter that lists exactly what’s in it.
“The manufacturers want to position themselves to be exclusive,” Rauter said. “If you go back 18 years when Project 25 started, it was supposed to reduce the price of radios. They’re not going down, they’re going up.”
Ham Group Ready for Action
The Arlington, Va., Office of Emergency Management will be the beneficiary of 25 amateur (ham) radio volunteers in the case of an incident requiring emergency communications.
The local Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES) volunteers graduated from a yearlong course of weekly radio communications exercises and are certified to help the Arlington County government in a crisis.
The volunteers each passed a county-authorized background check and achieved the first level of training required. Continual training and exercises are required to maintain the RACES affiliation.
Ham radio operators have a history of being able to quickly set up radio communications during emergencies when other systems have failed or become overloaded.
IM Provides Redundancy
One of the few reliable means of emergency communications during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was instant messaging.
That was not lost on Kentucky, which recently launched a project that will allow all public safety users in the state’s wireless data system to exchange messages from mobile data computers, vehicles or a stationary computer.
The project, KYWINS Messenger, lets first responders communicate when voice communication is unavailable. The program can also quickly broadcast a message to all users within seconds.
The project resulted from a joint effort by the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security, the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, the Commonwealth Office of Technology and the Center for Rural Development.
New Jersey Mesh
The Lakewood, N.J., Police Department will deploy a 4.9 GHz, broadband mobile mesh network for communication during patrols, surveillance activities, events and tactical operations.
The PacketHop Communications System is a software-based, infrastructure-optional network communications system loaded into the state’s police cruisers and in its command post.
The software converts analog video into digital video and distributes it across the network in real time. It allows police to monitor events from afar and to quickly move resources to where they’re needed and cut down on overtime costs.
The state successfully deployed the system during its Wingstock music festival in September 2006.
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