A Regional Approach to Communications Interoperability: How it Worked in the Tidewater
By Terry Hall
Public Safety Communications Manager, York County, Va.
Located in the southeast corner of Virginia, York is one of the oldest counties in the United States, but it is home to a cutting-edge public safety communications network that is a model for regional interoperability.
While its own population is around 62,000 residents, York County officials must contend with highly populated neighboring cities and an influx of outside traffic drawn to the area. Nearby historical sites including Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown attract scores of tourists, as does the summertime hotspot of Virginia Beach. The region is also a critical center for U.S. military operations, with the East Coast’s largest naval presence just a few miles down the road in Norfolk and Newport News.
Local, state and U.S. government and military entities in the region have increasing needs to work together in order to coordinate incident responses. The close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean brings occasional hurricanes to York County along with tornadoes and a regular dose of other weather emergencies. Day-to-day police, fire, and rescue services are more effective when inter and intra county cooperation can speed responses to emergencies. Changes to homeland security threat levels also require York County to work closely with the U.S. Coast Guard, Navy, Air Force, US Park Police, and other federal authorities to maintain a robust yet flexible security posture.
York County's requirements called out for a communications system that could deliver region-wide interoperability, enabling seamless sharing of voice and data traffic.
In 1997, officials with York County began to evaluate its current emergency communications capabilities. Like many regions around the country, York County's own emergency services were unable to communicate with one another, yet steadily rising mutual aid requests were forcing increased interaction with other jurisdictions. The fire and police departments resorted to standing side-by-side when they needed to coordinate radio communications across the departments. While discussions about addressing the lack of basic interoperability were advancing, the events of 9/11 were a catalyst for rapidly changing this situation for the benefit of public safety.
York County and neighboring James City County officials commissioned RCC Consulting and later Fred Griffin to conduct an assessment of the region's communications current capabilities and needs. The results showed that the two counties had significant gaps in their communications, including: insufficient radio coverage — less than a benchmark of 95% coverage, 95%t of the time; limited interoperability within the same jurisdiction; and virtually no interoperability with other counties, state officials, and federal agencies.
The consultants also determined that both counties needed more radio channel capability. Not surprising, as the system was designed for 30,000 annual calls for service, but was handling more than 250,000 calls as of 2006.
Frequently, York County responders would experience interference on the UHF band, largely a result of overcrowding. Even more distressing, the entire system was becoming less reliable and taking longer to fix.
A Collaborative Planning Approach
Early on in the network evaluation process, the two counties formed a policy team consisting of all stakeholders whose jobs relied on radio communications. The cross-section of end-users and officials included fire, police, EMS, the sheriff’s office, public works and utilities, and school transportation dispatchers.
From the outset, we agreed to involve all parties who used radios on a daily basis. In retrospect, this was one of the best moves we made as everyone came to the table with specific needs and a commitment to find the best solution for the region.
At times, the policy team was challenged by divergent views on priorities and technical requirements. There was, however, a strong collective interest in building the best possible system that would deliver on as many needs as possible.
Benefits of Regional Sharing
In addition to tackling the counties' communications problems by consensus, the policy team gave the counties greater purchasing power. Instead of buying two separate communications platforms, York and James City counties purchased a single platform that could be shared equally across both jurisdictions.
Both counties shared a switch, which saved substantial infrastructure cost. This enabled the program to get more for the initial $21 million budget — almost equally divided between the two counties.
Further stretching the budget, the group purchasing model was applied with great success to other aspects of the communications infrastructure. York and James City counties built sister 9-1-1 emergency dispatch centers, in which office equipment, operators’ terminals, software, and even the furniture is the same.
To provide an added layer of coverage, the sister 9-1-1 centers are completely redundant and calls are automatically switched if either county's facility goes down or becomes overloaded. York and James City 9-1-1 operators have also pooled their training resources which saves the counties money while ensuring that both teams are completely interchangeable should either center need to provide inter-county coverage.
We have found that by cross-training on the same equipment, both counties' teams really learn the ins and outs of each others' operations. This has proven invaluable when emergency situations require immediate and seamless transition of call center operations.
York and James City counties took a similar approach to tower siting. By clustering nine tower sites along the borders between the two counties, they were able to achieve 95% coverage, 95% of the time — with fewer towers. This saved further costs in both the initial build and long-term maintenance of the towers.
The infrastructure built by York and James City counties is state-of-the-art: a Motorola 800 MHz simulcast trunk system, based on Project 25 interoperability standards that offers both analog and digital service coverage. The system supports 20 channels with multiple talk groups and 800/700 MHz cross compatibility, which will enable the system to leverage new spectrum when it is made available.
P25 was a major prequalification during our vendor selection process. We did not want to take chances when it came to interoperability, and P25 standards would give us a future-proofed network that can leverage emerging technologies while supporting legacy systems.
The standards-based system is also compatible with the Department of Defense, U.S. Coast Guard, National Parks Service, U.S. Parks Policy, and other major jurisdictions, including Henrico County, home to the state capital, Richmond. The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg too has a cross-compatible campus security network that seamlessly links with the York and James City County network.
Putting the Network to the Test
Every day, York County's network carries the vital voice and data communications that are the lifeline for county officials and the citizens they serve. This includes everything from the mundane coordination of busses to bring kids to school to directing medevac air ambulance pick-ups at the scene of an accident.
Beyond the everyday communications activities now often taken for granted, there are several events that stand out as true tests of the systems' value in terms of interoperability, redundancy, and reliability.
In 2006, a fast-moving summer storm hit the Tidewater area with intense lightning, high winds, and pelting rain. During the first few minutes of the storm, the James City County 9-1-1 center was struck by lightning and knocked out of commission.
Inbound calls to James City were automatically routed to the York County 9-1-1 center, which handled emergency requests for both counties. In the 25 minutes that it took for the James City 9-1-1 operators to drive to the sister facility, York County dispatchers directed responses to more than 30 re-routed emergencies, including assisting in two U.S. Coast Guard water rescues.
At all times, emergency dispatch services were up and running with precision efficiency. Emergency responders in James City County were not even aware that their operator was from a neighboring county — that's a testament to what we’ve built together.
In May 2007, the Queen of England visited the region and toured many of the historical sites in commemoration of the Jamestown Colony's 400th anniversary. With the queen's arrival came significant security needs that included a long list of U.S. federal agencies working in cooperation with state and local authorities.
The York County and James City County network became the link for the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Park Police, and myriad state and local law enforcement departments. To provide added network capacity, Motorola brought a tower site on wheels (SOW) and additional service technicians to support preparation activities, such as setting up 154 talk groups.
From the James City County command post nearly 30 miles away from the queen's location, federal and state officials coordinated on-site security teams with the help from live video links that shared the network with voice traffic.
Following the queen's departure, I was approached by a federal agent who asked about our network. Everything worked great and visiting officials were easily and fully patched into the network. He was very impressed and remarked, "this is how it should be done."
As a result of its performance during this and other situations, the U.S. Coast Guard has nominated York and James City counties for an award to recognize their achievement in emergency communications.
York County's communications network gives it a solid footing on which it can build new capabilities. Already, York County officials are reviewing new advanced data technologies, including Motorola's Advanced License Plate Recognition (ALPR) solution. Now deployed in a cross-county beta test, the ALPR solution enables law enforcement from York and James City to scan thousands of motor vehicle tags each day. A handful of arrests have been directly attributed to the ALPR solution.
In addition, the counties are looking at a regional biometrics solution to capture and rapidly verify finger print records against law enforcement databases, giving officers in the field a quick means of finding felons.
Now, our capabilities are immense and the system's reliability is equally impressive. Just this year, we have logged over 18.5 million push-to-talks without a single busy signal — that's phenomenal. What's more, we have the infrastructure that will support exciting new data applications.
The regional footprint covered by this network is also expanding to include Gloucester, Virginia. Though separated by the York River, the network will be connected via a microwave link that will carry traffic over the water.
Regardless of what expansions are made to the communications system, be assured that York and James City county officials will be working together as a region to add onto what they've built.
A lifelong resident of York County, Terry Hall is the public safety communications manager for York County and current Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee for APCO International.
This article first appeared in the August 2008 issue of 9-1-1 MAGAZINE.