Pacheco: Integrated networks are the way to go

On Sept. 11, 2001, my public safety colleagues and I quickly realized that the world had changed. The swiftness of that realization stands in sharp contrast to the three years of indecision that have followed about how to handle terrorist threats.

Our initial reaction to the 2001 attacks was to acquire new protective gear for first responders, but that effort has slowly been replaced by a more ambitious quest for interoperable communications systems. As we pursue strategies to achieve this goal, we must realize that our choices will profoundly affect our ability to protect life and property.

Three interoperable communications options are available. The first is to replace all existing equipment with modern trunking systems, which work by sharing a small number of radio channels among a larger number of users. This would allow us to selectively talk with officials at other public safety agencies, depending on the situation. Such a system would make our response to any crisis much more efficient.

This option has several disadvantages, however. The first is the tremendous expense: Such a system would cost billions of dollars to build and either duplicate or render existing equipment obsolete. Second, this type of network can transfer only a limited amount of nonvoice data. Third, such a network would do little to prevent crimes or terrorist attacks.

The second option, and probably the one most officials favor, is to incrementally patch and strengthen existing voice systems. This is usually done using repeaters and amplifiers on existing equipment and selectively deploying trunking systems. Such an approach would save money, make use of the existing infrastructure and require minimal training. However, only its voice systems would be interoperable, and it would primarily be used for incident response, not prevention.

The third option uses wireless networks and high-speed fiber-optic lines. This type of unified network would use voice-over-IP technology to make existing police and fire radios completely interoperable on all frequencies. It would also support traditional phones, wireless phones and IP phones.

Such an IP-based solution could be built for a fraction of the cost of the first option — assuming unused fiber-optic lines are available, as they are in many

areas. At the same time, the proposed network's high bandwidth would enable police officers to share data in many forms, from video surveillance feeds to videoconferencing signals to rich e-learning content. Substituting e-learning programs for some traditional,

location-based classes, which often involves overtime pay and travel, could save millions of dollars in mandatory training every year.

Officials at the Raynham, Mass., Police Department are testing this option. Using existing radios, we are reliably and securely communicating with nearby police departments.

Unfortunately, public safety officials have been slower to embrace IP-based communications than those in the military and the private sector. They will make a big mistake if they choose to spend millions of dollars on technology that does not move beyond improving our emergency response to helping prepare for and prevent terrorism and other crimes.

Pacheco is deputy chief of police at the Raynham Police Department in Raynham, Mass.

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