Wireless users need more cross talk
- By Paul Korzeniowski
- Jun 24, 2002
When disaster strikes — be it earthquakes, terrorist attacks, tornadoes, crazed gunmen or anything else — first responders should be able to work together and talk to one another. But it is only now that agencies are beginning to make that possible.
Local police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians usually arrive at a disaster scene first. Then the Federal Emergency Management Agency and, depending on the situation, the FBI are likely to get involved. However, lack of coordination among these groups can diminish their effectiveness.
For example, on Sept. 11, a triage center with doctors, nurses and $600,000 of medical equipment was set up near the World Trade Center, but it was not used because no one knew it was there.
Communication is the key, but problems arise because the wireless network equipment that public service agencies use to exchange information is not usually compatible, experts say.
"There must be 10 to 12 frequency ranges that agencies rely on to exchange information, and the wide variety makes it difficult for them to communicate," said Chuck Jackson, vice president and director of system operations at Motorola Inc.
The federal government has known about this problem for some time and in 1996 launched its primary solution, the Public Safety Wireless Network (PSWN) program. But so far the results are mixed — only certain areas have succeeded in improving communications after numerous public safety agencies tweaked their equipment.
In July 1994, the federal Government Information Technology Services Board formed the Federal Law Enforcement Wireless Users Group to devise a plan for implementing a national wireless network, which would be open to state and municipal public safety agencies as well as federal agencies. That mandate evolved into PSWN, an initiative sponsored by the Justice and Treasury departments.
The project was designed to increase federal, state and local government agencies' awareness about current communication problems and help them — as well as suppliers — work toward solutions.
PSWN provides the public safety community with information about wireless interoperability, conducts symposiums across the nation that discuss current challenges in communications and encourages governments to conduct pilot projects in which agencies exchange information.
Now eight years after the initial federal mandate, most deployments have been limited to a few agencies, and local communications equipment seldom works with federal agencies' devices. There are plenty of well-known reasons for the lack of progress, experts say. Now it's a matter of identifying the solutions.
JPS Communications Inc. of Raleigh, N.C., has based its business on designing hardware and software that connects different wireless public safety communications systems. The firm has more than two dozen interconnection products that facilitate communications among two-way radios (High Frequency, VHF, UHF), cellular systems, satellite communications and landline telephones.
Many other companies are working on similar products to foster interoperability on the technical level, but such products represent only one piece of the puzzle, experts say. Some solutions don't even require investments in new technology.
"Public safety agencies may have equipment that operates in the same frequency range, but they have to know that their counterparts are in that range and set their systems to the appropriate frequency levels to communicate," said Ron Haraseth, a director at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-
International Inc., based in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Taking this step requires that agencies get together, share information about their equipment and agree to use common frequency bands. The process can be difficult and time-consuming.
"The bulk of the issues slowing equipment interoperability are bureaucratic rather than technical in nature," said Steve Proctor, executive director of the Utah Communications Agency Network (UCAN) in Salt Lake City.
Inertia can be one problem. Agencies have a set method of responding to an emergency, become comfortable with it and might not want to expend the time and effort needed to engage other departments.
Turf issues can also be a stumbling block. "As soon as interoperability talk starts, the question, 'Who is going to run the system?' comes up," Proctor said.
These deployments can also be expensive. Establishing the Pikes Peak Regional Communications Network, which provides interoperability between city and county public safety and public service agencies in Colorado, cost $25 million.
But it can be worth the time and trouble. The Pikes Peak network now enables 51 agencies — including the police, sheriff, airport, transit, fire and traffic engineering departments — to share information.
Tower of Babel
Politics and culture may be the most complex problems to solve, but technology is also a key inhibitor, experts say.
Through the years, the Federal Communications Commission has allocated radio frequency bands to public safety groups in a scattershot manner, based on how usage requirements and technologies evolved.
Whenever new services — such as wireless phones and wireless remote TV controls — emerge, the FCC has to place them in select radio frequency ranges so there will be minimal interference from the ever-
growing array of wireless devices.
Meanwhile, wireless technology continues to advance, and once a new frequency range emerges, vendors must build equipment that works in that channel. Public safety agencies then purchase the new devices, causing problems as old and new systems clash.
"When public safety agencies arrive on the scene of an emergency, they bring radio systems that are more than 20 years old, as well as systems purchased last week," said Robert Lee Jr., Justice's PSWN
In some cases, vendors deliver products that work in a couple of bands, but most devices operate in only one frequency. Getting all the devices, each of which uses a different frequency band, to communicate is a problem that can be solved. However, it won't be easy for agencies with budget constraints to take advantage of the new solutions.
"Designing equipment that operates in multiple channels means vendors [must] place two or more radios in one device, and that process increases their costs," Lee explained.
In addition, the FCC constantly needs to balance usage requirements with bandwidth availability, which has resulted in moving various services from frequency range to frequency range.
Communication systems used by public safety agencies rely mainly on half a dozen frequency bands to exchange information, ranging from 50 MHz to 800 MHz. And if that's not complex enough, agencies often share these frequencies with other devices, such as wireless phones and garage door openers, both of
which have the potential to garble
To address these problems, the FCC plans to move public safety comunications to a new band during the coming years.
Focus Shifting to Data
When it comes to the application of technology, the Pikes Peak network represents the typical interoperability project: a simple effort to better work with surrounding agencies on daily problems.
"We've found that public safety agencies in neighboring communities have taken steps to improve communication," said Don Scott, executive vice president of sales and marketing at JPS Communications.
Preparing for a large public event can spur agencies to improve their communications systems, as in Utah before the Olympics.
However, more progress is needed. For instance, UCAN's Proctor still is frustrated with wireless public safety equipment. "My cellular phone has more functionality and costs a lot less than our radio systems," he said.
Also, the variety of information that has to be exchanged is growing. "To date, most of the interoperability pilot programs have focused on improving voice communications," said PSWN's Lee. "There are times when agencies need to exchange data as well as voice, and I expect that to be an area of prime emphasis for PSWN in the coming years."
Korzeniowski is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Mass., who specializes in networking issues. He can be reached at email@example.com.