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Features

Can We Talk?

Since 9/11 we've come a long way in improving communication interoperability between emergency personnel. But there's still a long way to go.

October 01, 2007  |  by Steve Ashley - Also by this author

Tell me if this sounds familiar: You're working dispatch and a call comes in with someone screaming for help. You can't understand the address—in fact you can't even tell for sure if it's a man or a woman on the line. You ask the caller to calm down and repeat the address, and it's screamed into the phone again, and then the caller hangs up.

You're frustrated, but you know that incoming information is recorded, so you're not worried. When you try to play back the call, however, there's some kind of glitch, and the information is missing. Fortunately you get a return call with the information and you're able to send help.

The next day you report the technical problem, and the manufacturer of the recording equipment tells your boss that there's nothing wrong with its equipment. Your problem is all the fault of the phone company. But the phone company says it's the other company's fault. Now, it's you who wants to scream.

What you've just experienced is the real-world definition of a failure of interoperability: two systems that won't work together, and two manufacturers each pointing fingers at the other. In the public safety world, these kinds of problems can and have cost people their lives.

You know this. You've heard a lot about interoperability in the last few years. Here's a quick look at what's being done to make it easier for everybody in public safety to communicate when something really smelly hits the fan.

 

Borrowed Terminology

Although the problem has existed for a long time, it's only recently that "interoperability" has become something of a buzzword in public safety communications. The term itself is borrowed from the computer industry.

At its most fundamental, interoperability can be defined as the ability of systems to interact with one another. The term has more specific meaning when discussing software—generally referred to as compatibility—or some other specific functions. Interoperability actually denotes more than just compatibility, however. It refers to the ability of systems to not only co-exist on a certain level without interfering with the operation of each other, but to also make use of each other's resources, be they information, personnel, or technology.

In the public safety arena, interoperability often refers to the ability of one agency to communicate with another. However, if those agencies are to be truly interoperable, they must not only communicate, but should also fully interact through aspects of their personnel activities—sometimes referred to as integration—as well as their stored information, i.e. their databases. If the collective institutional memory—in the form of written and saved information—can be shared across organizations, then they are functionally interoperable.

 

The Old Workarounds

The inability of law enforcement agencies to communicate with other nearby agencies and other public safety personnel has plagued police officers since the day that radios were first installed in their cars.

Back in the dark ages of policing—say the 1960s and 1970s—many officers actually found themselves communicating via Citizen Band radios. Later, it was common for officers to "cross-monitor" radio transmissions of other agencies by simply listening to scanner radios. In fact, in many departments, the only way a patrol unit of one agency could talk directly to units from another agency was in just this way. Officers would talk on their own frequency, knowing that other officers were monitoring their frequencies with a scanner (often privately purchased by the officers themselves), and vice-versa.

One of the primary causes of this lack of communication was that, in many jurisdictions, different agencies were not only on different frequencies but were also on different broadcast bands. That being the case, even if an agency was able to afford multi-channel radios, their neighboring agency might be on an entirely different system.

Eventually, equipment became available that allowed officers to "scan" many frequencies with their radio, allowing simpler communication. Still, even today, differences in frequencies and technology often make it difficult to communicate.

 

Human Roadblocks

No new system is going to solve this problem just with technological innovation. The causes of the lack of communications interoperability among public safety agencies go beyond the technology. They extend to leadership and management, frequently involving issues of institutional culture. Like many other issues in the public safety realm, some institutions and organizations are uncomfortable with giving up too much control and are reluctant to share limited resources.

However, some stubborn folks have seen the light of day on this issue. Unfortunately, that light was shed by the fires of the World Trade Center.

When it became common public knowledge that inability to communicate via radio was one of the likely causes of so many deaths among emergency responders on 9/11, calls to provide solutions to the problem became irresistible. So even the most pigheaded of administrators realized that it was important for his cops to talk to the county EMS, city fire, county deputy sheriffs, and even, God forbid, the cops in neighboring cities.

So officials began meeting and discussing the problem in the aftermath of 9/11. This process has continued until the present day. Some agencies have been incorporating interoperability solutions into their networks in a piecemeal fashion, while others are still planning – often a euphemism for "looking for funding."

Even if you have the funding, the solution is not so simple.

The communication systems that were in place before 9/11 didn't spring up overnight. They evolved over many years as their communities grew. Many times, even the equipment within an individual agency might be scattershot, with some older radios and other equipment still utilized right alongside new acquisitions.

Because the current situation took years to evolve, it's reasonable to expect the fix to take some amount of time as well, despite a sense of urgency on the part of the officials responsible for implementing the change. While some agencies have done very well to get updates in place, many others are just nearing the end of their planning cycles, with target dates for full implementation of new systems stretching to the end of the decade and beyond.

 

It's a Big Problem

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the United States Council of Mayors began examining the issue in earnest, and in 2004 reported the results of a survey of 192 American cities. At that time, the Conference reported that 77 percent of cities actually did have interoperability between their police and fire departments, and 66 percent extended that interoperability to their EMS agencies. That sounds great, but it should be noted that the bigger the city, the more likely its cops and firefighters can't get on the same wavelength, so to speak.

And once you go beyond standard city services, communications get even more dicey. More than 86 percent reported that they did not have interoperability with their state highway department, and fully 94 percent did not have interoperability between their emergency services and local railway facilities. In addition, 80 percent did not have interoperable communications with the Department of Homeland Security, and 60 percent of cities did not have interoperable communications with state emergency operation centers. Finally, 49 percent reported that they did not have interoperable communications with their state police.

Other numbers were just as disheartening, with low interoperability reported between city emergency services and public works and transportation agencies, as well as other aspects of critical infrastructure.

 

No Quick Fix

There is no silver bullet that will solve the interoperability vacuum where it still exists. Lack of funding and regional differences in philosophy will continue to plague problem-solvers. However, there are some things that can be done to start agencies along the path to interoperability.

Combining resources into regional communication centers and networks greatly facilitates the flow of information. Coupling such a combined initiative with adoption of updated digital radio equipment can ease the communications bottleneck and make better use of the available radio spectrum. Adoption of emerging technologies related to satellite and cellular communications can further alleviate the problem.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has worked closely with several regional programs to facilitate interoperability. One of the earliest of these was the San Diego County project known as the Border Tactical Communication System. This program connected the dispatch centers of agencies operating in San Diego County and made it possible for their officers to share information and to communicate directly with each other. The San Diego project has served as a model for other efforts around the country, including Los Angeles County and Brownsville, Texas.

Many states have either addressed the problem or are in the process of doing so. Delaware is one example of interoperability success, and many other states are deep into the planning stages.

 

Is 25 the Answer?

Because of the long-standing problem of inter-agency and inter-jurisdictional communication, the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) took the lead in developing a set of standards that manufacturers and organizations could follow in order to facilitate long-term solutions. Termed Project 25 (P25), or sometimes APCO-25, this project was geared to the development and implementation of technical standards, as well as adoption of a phased approach to the incorporation of future research.

APCO was joined in this effort by the National Association of State Telecommunications Directors (NASTD), the National Communications System (NCS), and the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA). Additionally, many federal agencies and state organizations have taken part.

P25 is an open-architecture, user-driven system that is actually a suite of standards geared to the development of digital communications solutions for public safety (although the private sector has begun to adopt the standard as well). P25 focuses on the interfaces, operations, and capabilities of digital land mobile radios. Therefore, any radio that meets the standard is deemed a "P25 radio". P25 radios can communicate with older radios using analog features, and can also talk to each other and to the new digital systems in both analog and digital modes.

There are three phases to deployment in the P25 project. Each phase incorporates more sophisticated technology with greater capabilities. Phase One is underway right now, with Phase Two and Phase Three still under development.

 

Commercial Solutions

The one thing that's sure about any attempt to make it easier for emergency personnel to talk to each other is that it's going to require technological prowess and lots of money. Which means that the major manufacturers of emergency communications will help lead the way. After all, they have the know-how to make the stuff and the desire to sell it.

 

Motorola

Motorola's MOTOBRIDGE is one proven and affordable option for creating an interoperable solution. With MOTOBRIDGE, departments with incompatible radio systems can interface with each other without replacing their existing gear. There's no limit to the expansion possible, and MOTOBRIDGE can be customized for small agencies as well as larger ones. It can be configured to facilitate department-to-department communications, as well as car-to-car (from different departments) connections.

MOTOBRIDGE can interface digital and analog systems, as well as trunked to conventional systems. Additionally, radio networks can be linked with telephone and cellular devices. There is no single point of vulnerability. Because the system is managed through IP communications, it is self-healing. Should one element be knocked off-line in an emergency situation, communications are rerouted automatically.

Training costs are kept low because end-users will still be utilizing their existing equipment. Dispatchers and telecommunications personnel use a simple, point-and-click interface.

There are MOTOBRIDGE solutions in place in Georgia, Florida and Virginia, as well as other locations. The Florida Interoperability Network is a good example of MOTOBRIDGE at work. The Florida system services more than 200 local dispatch centers, and all 67 counties, and links to the state's Emergency Operations Center.

 

M/A-COM

Tyco Electronics offers a similar solution under its M/A-COM brand. NetworkFirst is an IP-based product that uses a software approach to link and interconnect all sorts of legacy analog and digital systems for interoperability.

Operating very much like a standard LAN (local area network), NetworkFirst links other systems to a network switching center via interoperability gateways. These systems utilize industry standard routers and other equipment to facilitate communications between agencies using different brands and types of equipment. NetworkFirst is really a "network solution to a radio problem."

NetworkFirst has been selected by the U.S. Department of Defense to be deployed in the National Capital Region, where it will be used to provide interoperability between defense installations and 60 civilian public safety agencies.

 

Icom

Icom America offers a system that includes analog and digital communications capability in one radio unit. Agencies that want to ease into the transition to digital can start with analog radios that are upgradeable to digital through reprogramming. Icom's radios are compliant with MIL-STD 810, and its portable radio is actually submersible.

In addition, Icom offers a unique trade-in program that could save departments a lot of money. Icom will accept any working land mobile radio from any manufacturer in trade for a new Icom P25 radio. Depending on the model purchased, the trade-in allowance is between $800 and $900, which represents about a 50-percent savings. There is no limit to the number of units a department can trade in.

 

The Future

Solutions going forward must account for aging systems and the disparity of equipment, along with a lack of funding for upgrading technology. Other steps that will aid in increased interoperability are reallocation of portions of the radio spectrum to public safety usage, and the continued development of standards for communications hardware and software.

Governmental entities must also continue to solve issues of culture, territoriality, personality differences and liability. As they do so, public safety officials will enhance their ability to communicate quickly and effectively.

 

A retired officer and a police trainer for 20 years, Steve Ashley conducts use-of-force and driving classes at a Michigan academy. He is a certified trainer in many subjects and lead columnist for the Training Channel at PoliceMag.com.

Tags: P25, Interoperability, Motorola, M/A-COM, Icom

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