Inter-agency comms: From PTT phones to P25 radios

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By Doug Wyllie
FireRescue1 Staff

Every day, firefighters, paramedics, police officers and other public safety professionals have to communicate mission-critical information — in some of the most demanding environments and challenging circumstances — across jurisdictions, disciplines, and agencies. They cannot afford a breakdown in the technology through which they're talking. In other words, encountering the proverbial "dropped call" is simply not an option.

What are some of the steps being taken today to ensure that the message sent is, in fact, the message received, whether that is via voice or data connection? How are agencies and disciplines increasing their ability to remain connected in the micro, incident-response practice of public service, and how are they looking at the macro picture as plans are made and foundations laid for the future?

Naturally, there are a number of technical reasons why systems can't talk to each other and radios can't talk to each other, but underneath it all is the age-old issue of political territoriality that stems from budget rivalry and disparate cultural mindsets among public safety disciplines.

Ben Madgett, a senior analyst covering public sector technology for the industry research group Datamonitor, says that public safety agencies have always struggled to enable first responders from multiple disciplines, jurisdictions, and levels of government to communicate during emergencies due to incompatible equipment, but that technology is just one of the impediments.

"More than simply a radio or network issue, organizations must address the systemic and cultural barriers that inhibit cooperation in addition to the technology strategies that hinder communications interoperability. Agencies struggle to plan for and implement interoperability due to a lack of funding, organizational challenges and technology confusion," Madgett explains.

Furthermore, politics can deter elected officials from purchasing interoperable communications equipment, according to Madgett. "Because there is no clear leading technology to enhance interoperability, some elected officials may postpone procuring equipment until a preferred method emerges. In this economic climate, local governments have limited budgets and multiple constituencies to serve — any budget allocation has political consequences and officials may be reluctant to disperse funds for possible emergencies when other programs also need funding."

Jeff Viking, vice president of the homeland security and law enforcement group for analyst firm Gartner Research says that among the most critical things to do from the outset is to set mutually agreed upon governance policies, map out procedures, create training programs to support those procedures, and THEN work together to get funding and deploy a solution.

"You need to be able to have more interoperable voice, data, imagery, and text. To get there, all these agencies have to get around a table and agree to have mutual governance and policies, and that takes time. Then you have to create your practices and procedures manual and then you have to select your technology. They you have your use cases and training samples—basically answering the question, 'when will we use this?' And the overarching piece is what I call the regionalization of the homeland. With all the UASI grants and the federal funding after 9/11, everything really has to be a more regional approach, not a mission-specific agency approach — you just need to be more regional in your approach.

Bay Area program
One example of such an approach is the Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative program, which is comprised of three major cities (Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose) ten counties (Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Solano, and Sonoma), more than 100 incorporated cities, as well as three international airports, six professional sports teams, and the fourth busiest port in the country.

Terry Betts serves as the Interoperability Program Director for San Francisco Bay Area UASI. Betts says that the way to get the most out of any available technology is to begin by getting all agencies on the same page politically. The technology, he says, will follow. "Stovepipe systems are no longer feasible to share information. We decided very early on that, if money is going to be spent on interoperability it's going to go toward P25 equipment and there would be no — and I think this is a key part — there would be no political arm-twisting taking place… I think that everyone realizes that this type of cooperation is the right thing to do."

Bay Area UASI is currently facilitating the implementation of BayRICS — the Bay Area Regional Interoperable Communication System. To date, Bay Area UASI has funded more than $50 million on interoperable communication equipment, mostly in the continuing implementation of BayRICS

Betts explains, "BayRICS is made up of four segments; a P25 voice system, a 4G wireless data system, a dual OC3 digital microwave system connecting all counties together, and an information sharing system for all law enforcement agencies in the Bay Area."
Eddie Reyes, Deputy Chief for the Alexandria, (Va.) Police Department says, "I truly believe that the three most critical components to cross-jurisdictional cooperation are governance, standards, and training."

Reyes adds that that while some agencies have made great strides toward working closely with their neighbors in the process of preparation and training (multi-agency drills, emergency preparedness plans, etc), as well as actually responding to live events, others have not taken this very seriously.

"Remember, large mutual aid events can occur anywhere, even in remote locations. One of the places affected by the attacks on September 11th was Shanksville. Don't kid yourself, it is not a matter of 'if it happens,' it's a matter of 'when it happens'," Reyes says. "If your agency hasn't done it already, begin to focus on governance, standards, and training and you'll be better prepared when the 'big one' hits your region. These three elements almost ensure that agencies will use their equipment and technologies effectively and work together to resolve any crisis."

Nightmare scenario
Let's contemplate what would happen during a nightmare scenario. A major catastrophe occurs in "City X" — think Oklahoma City, Waco, and Loma Prieta all mixed in together. All manner of public safety personnel will respond from every point on the compass rose. What's the first way that many of these people will tend to try to communicate when they all arrive? Betts says it will be a combination of solutions, begging with the mobile phones in their pockets.

"The first way is probably going to be cell phones, since everybody's got one these days. As the event timeline goes on, there will be Comm Unit Leaders on scene with mobile repeaters, AC-100 'black boxes' to tie disparate systems together. So at some point a quasi-communications system will tie the existing radios in that area to the radios coming in so that they can communicate.

It really depends on how long the event is go to last. If it's going to be a multiple response from all areas of the United States I suspect it's going to last a long time. If you've got a P25 system and somebody comes in from someplace else in the United States, it's going to take a little while to do the programming and authorization of that new radio to be able to talk on it within that area's system. If it's a not a P25 radio — if it's a conventional radio — most areas have conventional systems up for this kind of event.

Those systems have the capability to tie all these channels together to make a common interoperability channel."
The fire service typically has a much more advanced interoperable communications capability than other areas of public safety. The reason, Betts says, is that fire events tend to last a long time.

"Forest fires, grass fires, building fires, and that sort of thing can last for many hours. With law enforcement," he says, "even a chase that takes you though three jurisdictions is over in 20 minutes. So the fire service over the years has really developed a mutual aid system to be able to use those channels. Law enforcement really hasn't had that opportunity. They have some capabilities like that but not to the extent that the fire service has."

Betts says that VHF is likely to be the fire services' nationwide interoperability spectrum of choice, and that virtually every fire service in the country already has (or soon will have) some VHF capability. "California Division of Forestry, for example, is all VHF, so every fire vehicle in California carries a VHF radio."

In addition to the practice of keeping a set of spare radios — whether they are VHF or UHF, there is an ever-increasing move by public safety agencies toward the adoption of the aforementioned P25 standard. The P25 standard is actually a suite of standards and essentially the Common Air Interface, which is what mobiles and portables are built to, has been finalized. The National Institute of Standards and Technology has been certifying labs to look at manufacturers' radios to ensure that they are being built to those standards.

Betts says, "I don't know of anybody that builds a P25 radio today that makes what's called a proprietary P25 unit. I think manufacturers are savvier than that. They know they're not going to get the sales that they need if they build a P25 radio that only works on one system."

Social network sites
In the table-top drill we discussed, Betts says that law enforcement will almost certainly be forced to rely on cell phones until those black boxes those kinds of things get set up to use standard radios, or until permissions and authorizations are set for inbound P25 radios. "A lot of people will be using their personal PDAs and cell phones," he says.

Drilling a little deeper into the ways in which the mobile carrier networks play into public safety interoperability Betts says that things like Twitter and Facebook have emerged as impromptu — albeit at times unauthorized — alternate avenues for public safety communications that leverage 3G wireless technologies.

"Twitter, PDAs, iPhones, and all those types of devices that people are using out there are becoming very, very big in distributing information. For example, at the Presidential Inauguration earlier this year they used this kind of stuff extensively to find out where problems were occurring and to position people in response."

Many wireless carriers, from the strictly-consumer focused Boost Mobile to the established vendors with deep inroads into government agencies — such as AT&T, Sprint|NEXTEL, and Verizon — offer features that are being widely adopted by public service personnel.

In addition, numerous online social networking sites have robust mobile capabilities that lend themselves to the instant dissemination of information — Facebook and Twitter are currently the most popular but there are many others — that enable one-to-many like and one-to-one messages. In addition, an increasing number of mobile phones have a push-to-talk (PTT) feature. PTT offerings vary in both their underlying technology and in cost per user, but the basic concept is the same: phones on the same network can function just like a walkie-talkie.

"With Sprint|NEXTEL, the push-to-talk system is actually an 800 MHz Trunking system — it's not purely a cellular system — so it works very well. The Sprint side of the system is CMDA, so when you use the device as a cell phone it goes over the cellular network. But when you do the push-to-talk, you're on the NEXTEL system and it goes over a radio network. That's why public safety likes NEXTEL so much — it's instant and it's nationwide — the only problem of course, is that putting a whole agency on this system gets very, very expensive. Verizon's push-to-talk is completely cellular, and I haven't used yet so I'm not quite sure how it works."

"I have several clients in the emergency management side that are looking at using blogs and Wikis," Viking adds. "These agencies are willing to say to their police, fire, and emergency management people, 'Hey, get on this secure hosted Wiki and post your comments.' This way, everyone can see everything across time, space, geography. You can attach files and videos, and it's all secure. And they're experimenting with it because that's another quick way of communicating that's available out there."

Viking says that this can be an efficient alternative to the big-budget, big-city approach of the unified communications center, such as those implemented in recent years in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and other places. Those systems are great, he says, but the infrastructure is immense and it's expensive to do.

"As you know, the top 57 areas of the country get most of the money. Those cities with 100,000 folks are going to get some money but they're not going to get the lion's share." Viking says that as a result, some of these consumer Internet technologies make a lot of sense.

Madgett concludes, "Since many of the requirements of interoperability — coordination, information sharing, and collective decision-marking — are contradictory to the fragmented organizational structure that is inherent to state and local government, the obstacles to developing interoperability may seem insurmountable. However, as the market evolves, agencies will develop procedures to coordinate with peer organizations and achieve stakeholder agreement."

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