The success or failure of tactical operations can come down to a matter of communication dependability.
Consider the recent hijacking of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama off the horn of Africa. A skirmish on board the vessel resulted in the ship's captain, Richard Phillips, being taken captive by pirates. A few days later, Navy SEALs rescued Capt. Phillips, killing three of his captors and capturing a fourth in the process. A series of transmitted radio commands-commands that resulted in SEAL operatives taking simultaneous shots at Phillips' abductors-played no small part in the success of the tactical operation.
That SEAL operation off the coast of Somalia is a clear example of how critical clear communications are to a successful tactical operation.
For the flip side of this equation, look at the Columbine school massacre.
Among the communication setbacks experienced at Columbine were the wide variety of radio frequencies used by the some 47 different agencies that responded to the incident. SWAT units also had to deal with environmental factors that inhibited communications, including a cacophony of alarms going off in hallways. Also the varying reliability of protected channel communications and almost non-existent radio communications between SWAT and the command post didn't help. These factors and others resulted in redundancy of effort and a protraction of the incident.
Columbine is a vivid example of what happens during a tactical operation when communications break down. It and 9/11 are also strong examples of why first responders need radios that can talk to personnel from other agencies.
Cleaning Up a Mess
"Communications tend to fail as soon as you need them," observes Bill Palmer, a Minneapolis sergeant who recently left his department's SWAT unit. "Mister Murphy is always around. We had an incident where a gun nut ran into the local community college in downtown Minneapolis, and we had to operate with multiple SWAT teams, including our teams, state teams, FBI, sheriffs, and a couple of local teams. The ability to communicate with the local teams was difficult and, with the Feds, it was nearly impossible."
Making it easier for different law enforcement agencies to communicate is one of the most critical issues in tactical communications. But it's not something that can be easily achieved.
To advance this effort, federal grants are increasingly being awarded to agencies so that they can purchase systems that are interoperable with other local, state, and federal public safety agencies.
Also, industry groups have been developing guidelines for interoperable systems. For example, the National Communications System (NCS) has encouraged enhanced features in tactical communications. Working with other entities such as the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International, the National Association of State Telecommunications Directors (NASTD), and selected federal agencies NCS helped establish Project 25 (P-25), a steering committee responsible for selecting voluntary common system standards for digital public safety radio communications.
P25-compliant systems may well address a number of technical and tactical issues that have historically hampered interagency communications: interoperability between analog and digital modes, transmission security, cost effectiveness, and upgradability. Such systems are increasingly being deployed in the field.
When the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) recommended Project 25 standards, EF Johnson Technologies was quick to embrace them. "In fact," notes company representative Kevin Nolan, "we are the first radio supplier to ship our radios with the enhanced Project 25 Vocoder. The enhanced P25 Vocoder provides a very loud and intelligible digital signal while filtering out background noise."
EF Johnson's Transcrypt product line provides a number of digital encryption and scrambler modules. Its VoSec encryption model delivers excellent voice quality under poor environmental conditions and is available for use with a department's existing Motorola, Icom, Kenwood, and Vertex radios. The company's portable and mobile radios likewise offer P-25 compliance for enhanced security.
Interoperability is the hot buzz word in post-9/11 public safety communication, but it can be a two-edged sword for SWAT communications.
When dealing with a self-contained scenario, most SWAT teams will avoid using an open communications system for safety and security. But when the situation requires outside coordination to direct outside agencies within the perimeter, to extract an injured team member, or when the situation moves into another agency's territory SWAT teams need to be able to open their frequencies with minimal effort.
Temco Communications offers voice-activated voice intercom systems and push-to-talk (PTT) accessories, along with a variety of tactical headsets and microphones designed specifically for rugged outdoor use. Push-to-talk technology is particularly important for SWAT team members whose hands are typically occupied with weapons or other equipment.
With the push of a button or a simple voice command, officers can establish communication with other team members. Television Equipment Associates (TEA) takes the hands-free technology a step further, with several push-to-talk options that can be clipped to the chest or to the stock of a sniper rifle for greater ease of use.
Flipping a Switch
Increasingly, with the availability of federal funding for interagency communications systems, many manufacturers offer field radios that allow line officers to switch to another agency's frequency with a flick of a switch.
Three challenges need to be met in order for agencies to become fully interoperative: the availability of affordable interoperable equipment, defined procedures for when and how to interoperate with other agencies, and training for personnel on the use of the equipment and procedures.
To meet this need, National Interop provides consulting services for law enforcement agencies to acquire equipment and expertise in all three areas.
Interoperability alone is not a cure-all panacea for SWAT communications.
PoliceMag.com SWAT Channel columnist and retired SWAT sergeant Bob O'Brien says that at a technical level, improving SWAT communications is a balancing act of reconciling environmental and tactical considerations.
Environmental factors that can wreak havoc on communications systems include electromagnetic interference caused by power lines, car ignition systems, anti-theft devices, scanners, and many other electronic devices and electrical installations. Such factors can make an already inherently dangerous situation more so.