Vendors offer interoperability on a national scale

Emergency responders say they need to solve regional interoperability problems first

The Government Accountability Office has repeatedly pointed to a lack of interoperable voice and data communications as one of the failings of the government’s emergency response capability.

“Despite the fact that many entities had emergency communications, they were not interoperable,” U.S. Comptroller General David Walker, GAO’s top official, said at a recent conference on Hurricane Katrina.

Communications companies have tried to address the lack of interoperability with scalable systems that some localities are beginning to deploy.

Authorities in Dallas, for example, have taken steps to achieve interoperable voice communications at the local level. On Sept. 14, authorities at Dallas Love Field Airport announced they would be using an interoperable voice communications service developed by Seattle-based CoCo Communications.

The subscription-based service uses the company’s proprietary cryptographic mesh protocol embedded in node application software to create interoperable voice and data communications among VHF and UHF radios, cell phones, microphone-equipped personal digital assistants and PC-based IP software phones.

Such devices running the node application software can communicate via an Inmarsat M4 portable satellite uplink if a disaster has destroyed traditional voice, radio and data networks, according to the company’s technical documents. The mesh protocol enables any device to become an intermediate node for routing voice, radio or data traffic to its destination.

System components include a Microsoft Windows-based client application that combines the functionality of a PC soft phone, a walkie-talkie, a message center and a remote-camera viewing station.

The system requires CoCo access points and dispatcher-controlled conference server software for configuring and managing various radio, phone or messaging bridges.

The conference server runs on Windows Server 2003 Standard Edition or Debian GNU/Linux 3.1 operating systems and uses a Cisco Systems 2800 series router for land/mobile gateway services.

Cisco has developed a scalable system for interoperable communications that it says could support intergovernmental communications at national, state and local levels. The Cisco IP Interoperability and Collaboration System (IPICS) uses IP standards to integrate incompatible two-way radio communications and bridges two-way radio networks with other voice, video and data networks.

Its components include Linux-based IPICS server hardware and software, an IPICS management center application and IPICS client software.

Dean Zanone, customer solutions manager at Cisco’s Safety and Security Systems business unit, said Internet and wireless networks can solve the problem of intergovernmental communications.

“There’s a communications choke point between the people who are calling for assistance and…all the people providing the assistance,” he said. “The critical information we need actually resides in networks.”

Political resistance to such technical solutions, however, is a factor preventing their adoption. Interorganizational communications between commanders broke down during Hurricane Katrina, said Stephan Papadopulos, president and chief executive officer of the Triage Group, a consulting services firm that specializes in business process management for first responders and homeland security agencies.

“If you look at emergency response as an enterprise, you tend to have siloed thinking,” he said. “Generally the focus is communicating with your own domain. Interoperability requires people to break down those barriers.”

Rob LeGrande, chief technology officer for the National Capital Region in Washington, D.C., has been an advocate of interorganizational interoperability since 1982, when an airplane crashed into the city’s 14th Street Bridge. LeGrande said coordinating communications between local first responders is a must.

The region has installed a Wireless Accelerated Responder Network (WARN), an interoperable voice network that covers about 95 percent of the city. It was implemented in September 2004 and first used during the January 2005 inauguration of President Bush. It operates in the 700 MHz radio frequency reserved for intergovernmental communications.

WARN can be expanded to include IP connectivity, but LeGrande said he would doubt its effectiveness. “While the IP networks are mature, the devices used on them [such as IP phones] are not,” he said.

LeGrande said emergency response communications are most important at the regional level.

“We like this idea of a national network, but we want regional networks first,” he said.

Cyber exercise shows lack of interagency coordinationPhysical crises aren’t the only emergency situations in which interoperable communications are essential. Cyberattacks can also disrupt Internet connectivity or power grids.

In February, the Homeland Security Department simulated cyberattacks on multiple federal agencies, choosing the types of cyberattacks that disrupt infrastructures, hinder responses and undermine public confidence in the government’s ability to protect resources and people.

A summary of the simulation released Sept. 12 showed that interagency coordination and communications were major problems. The U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team had difficulty disseminating technical information to agencies. A lack of communication stymied efforts to coordinate responses. Differentiated communications channels for public, agency and classified use were lacking.

In addition to those problems, backup communication systems were insufficient. The report states that many participants relied on communications systems that were also vulnerable to attack or failure.

— Wade-Hahn Chan

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