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How to buy secure communications

By Bob Smith
APCO International Director of Strategic Development

Secure communications can mean many things. Secure can refer to encrypted frequencies and equipment used to broadcast sensitive information or it can mean equipment and technology put in place to ensure that a radio system from user to user is safe, secure and resilient.

Either way there are several things to consider when purchasing secure communications equipment.

Ease of Use
The current buzzword for many in the public safety communications industry is "interoperability." Whether discussing radio interoperability that allows disparate radios and frequencies to communicate with each other or data interoperability that allows computer aided dispatch (CAD) systems and other technology to communicate regardless of vendor or type, interoperability is a must for effective and efficient communications in every field of public safety. However, interoperability is subsequent to operability. This means no level of technological advancement will be effective if it is difficult to learn or use in day-to-day operations. When purchasing equipment, be sure to consider the end users and get input from them prior to making any level of commitment.

In essence, resiliency means less easy to break. For communications, this means durable redundant systems at every point in the system. Field radios should be durable, weather/waterproof and safe for hazardous environments. The infrastructure that bridges the gap between field agency and communications center should be durable, redundant and self-sufficient during disaster situations, to include back-up power. Communications center equipment should be modern, user-friendly and capable of meeting the needs of today’s communications center, to include the ability to evolve with new technology and products.

By its sheer nature, communications equipment is ever changing and evolving. This means the technology of today will be obsolete tomorrow or shortly thereafter. Equipment being purchased today should be designed for upgrades and modifications to meet these needs versus replacement. Systems that do not allow for future expansions or upgrades will quickly become stagnant and ineffective. This, in turn, will lead to additional purchases and expenses that would far outweigh the costs of planning today for operations tomorrow.

The phrase "secure communications" covers a wide variety of technology and equipment; from satellite-based systems and encrypted telephones to hardened radios and pagers. When agencies are looking to purchase any type of secure communications equipment a few basics need consideration to ensure they are purchasing the best equipment available and, more importantly, the equipment that meets their needs today and tomorrow.   

  • Any other suggestions? Anything we missed in the list above? Leave a comment below or e-mail products@firerescue1.com with your feedback.


Bob Smith is the Director of Strategic Development at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International. His almost two decades in public safety includes rising through the ranks from firefighter/EMT to captain of the department’s hazardous materials response and through the ranks of public safety communications from telecommunicator to county 9-1-1 Director. Along the way, he's been actively involved in emergency management on the state and local levels, served as a nationally registered EMT, a College Campus Safety Officer, an EPA-certified hazardous materials technician and a liaison to the US Secret Service and US Capitol Police. A world-renowned lecturer and subject matter expert in the public safety arena and author of "Active Shooter Incidents for Public Safety Communications," "The Telecommunicator’s Role in Homeland Security" and other public safety-oriented texts, Bob has been featured in interviews with NBC, ABC News, USA News and the Associated Press among others.

APCO International is the world's largest organization dedicated to public safety communications. More than 15,000 members rely on APCO for their professional needs – from examining standards and issues to providing education, products and services. It is a member-driven association of communications professionals that provides leadership, influences public safety communications decisions of government and industry, promotes professional development, and, fosters the development and use of technology for the benefit of the public. Its subsidiaries include the APCO Institute, Automated Frequency Coordination and the Public Safety Foundation of America.

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