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Features

Sorting Out Communications Chaos

Law enforcement and radio vendors search for solutions to the problem of interoperability.

November 01, 2004  |  by - Also by this author


On Thursday Nov. 14, 1996, a man dressed in camouflage fatigues shot his way into a Ford plant in the Oakland County, Mich., community of Wixom. He then killed the plant's number two official, sprayed gunfire around work areas, and wounded two police officers.

The Wixom case was an eye opener for Oakland County public safety officials. Numerous law enforcement agencies responded to the active-shooter incident and, for the officers involved, the incident was an ordeal. The gunman was inside a huge building.  If that wasn't bad enough, communications problems among officers from the 25 different agencies involved made it extremely difficult for responders to coordinate the five-hour operation that led to the shooter's surrender.

The eight-year-old Wixom incident still resonates with Oakland County public safety administrators. It is cited as one of the primary factors that Oakland County is now bringing online a sophisticated new M/A-Com public safety community system that will allow law enforcement, fire, and EMS personnel to respond to the same incident and communicate seamlessly.

"After the Wixom shooting and other incidents, the county's communications leadership group realized that we needed a countywide radio system that would allow us all to do our day-to-day business without listening to each other's calls but talk to each other when we need to talk," says Patricia Coates, an Oakland County public safety communications administrator.

The Oakland County experience is not unique. Throughout the United States and Canada, public safety agencies have arrived at the startling conclusion that their wireless communications systems are woefully inadequate for coordinating multiagency response at critical incidents. Most were painfully aware of the problem prior to the 9/11 attacks.

Searching for a comprehensive definition for interoperability can lead to an unpleasant expedition into radio geek jargon and public policy wonk-speak, but it essentially means that the radios in the local police cars should be able to communicate with the radios in the local fire, sheriff's, and rescue vehicles.

Frequency Jumble

And that wouldn't be a problem if every public safety communication system in the United States and Canada were being built today or if there were an infinite number of radio frequency bands. Unfortunately, police cars have been using two-way radios since before World War II and broadcast frequencies are limited by natural law.

So public safety agencies operate on a spaghetti tangle of frequencies and frequency bands, including low-band, VHF, UHF, and 800MHz. The result is that officers on VHF radios can't speak to paramedics on UHF radios who can't speak to HazMat teams on 800MHz.

Which is exactly the way the system was intended to work in some areas. The Anytown USA police didn't want to be on the same frequency as the nearby Anycity USA police because they didn't want to listen to each other's calls. So they built systems that don't branch off to other frequencies and that block interference from other agencies.

Magnifying the problem is the aforementioned limits of broadcast frequencies. There's only so much radio real estate, which wasn't a problem back when the first police radios came online. But what the police radios pioneers couldn't imagine was that the curiosity called television would soon fill the airwaves, as would FM radio channels and cell phones.

Branching Out

For public safety agencies to achieve communications interoperability, the old "stovepipe" radio systems have to be broken down and radio real estate has to be cleared of its current occupants. That means that agencies, political officials, the public, and commercial broadcasters, including cell phone companies, will have to change the ways they do business, show resolve, and make sacrifices.

Chuck Jackson, a public safety communications specialist at Motorola, notes that six elements are essential for successful interoperability among agencies: funding, planning, broadcast spectrum, equipment standards, interagency agreements, and trained personnel.

Money is, of course, traditionally one of the reasons why public safety communications lag behind the state of the art. But some states have laws that permit a telephone surcharge to upgrade 911 service and, in some communities such as Oakland County, Mich., this tax is being used to install interoperable public safety communications systems.

Also, the effects of 9/11 and Homeland Security grants have shaken loose some funding for interoperability solutions. Last year in Minnesota alone, seven agencies used Homeland Security grants to build interoperable communications systems.

That was from one state fund. If you extrapolate out to 50 states and about 50,000 agencies, it's not hard to imagine that a proverbial boatload of federal, state, and local tax money is being used to upgrade public safety communications.

Funding is essential, but interoperable radio systems cannot be established just with money. Upgrading a public safety radio system, no matter how small, requires some careful consideration of needs, goals, and implementation strategies.

You also need available radio spectrum, which means the government has to clear some channels. Such plans are afoot. A deal with TV broadcasters is supposed to clear the 700MHz band for public safety transmission of both voice and data by 2006. However, that deal hinges on the public's desire for new digital television sets and is likely to be delayed.

Fortunately, many agencies already have enough broadcast spectrum to permit them to upgrade to interoperable radio systems. And even small agencies have been given a boost in their efforts to improve their communications by an industry standard called Project 25.

Developed in 1989 and just now coming to fruition, Project 25 was an initiative from the Association of Public Safety Communication Officials (APCO) that requires the manufacturers of public safety communications equipment to standardize their products.

Prior to Project 25, when agencies bought equipment from Motorola, or M/A-Com, or E.F. Johnson, or whoever, their entire system had to be from that vendor. Not anymore. Project 25 standardization means that the dispatch center's equipment can be from vendor A and the officer's radios from vendor B.

Dozens of companies make P25 standard equipment, which means that companies that want your business have to make very competitive bids. Which, of course, drives down the cost of upgrading radio systems.

Better yet, P25 standard equipment is backwards compatible to older equipment. And it's scaleable, so a 20-officer department can upgrade its equipment to P25 standard without having to buy equipment meant for a much larger agency.

Consideration for such concerns of smaller agencies is critical to an interoperability plan. For interoperability to exist, agencies have to be willing to communicate with each other.

Once you have funding, a plan, radio spectrum, standardized equipment for the agencies involved, and buy-in from agency commanders, an interoperable communications system can be implemented. But it's critical that your plan include training of not only dispatch center operators, but also field officers to ensure that they know how to work your new state-of-the-art system.

The need for training your personnel on their new equipment seems like a no-brainer. But Motorola's Jackson says that training is often an afterthought in an interoperability plan. "There have been instances where the technology has been in place but because people haven't practiced with it, it couldn't be used, and it didn't get used," he explains.

Tags: Communications, Interoperability

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