Vendors offer interoperable answers

National Task Force on Interoperability

As states and communities continue to strive for interoperable communications for first responders, vendors are offering devices that can save governments from having to build systems from scratch.

Transcrypt International, a Lincoln, Neb.-based subsidiary of EFJ Inc., known for providing voice security in land mobile radios, has just introduced the Tactical Interoperability Kit (TIK), a portable device that can link portable and mobile radios operating in three frequencies.

Meanwhile, another company — M/A-Com, a Lowell, Mass.-based unit of Tyco Electronics — has launched a scalable, network-based, fixed solution called NetworkFirst that uses IP to connect existing systems and radios.

While the lack of interoperable radio communications has been a prime concern for many police officers, firefighters and other emergency response personnel for years, the widely publicized communications problems encountered by New York City police and firefighters in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attack catapulted the issue into the national spotlight. Nationwide, first responders communicate over different VHF, UHF and 800 MHz frequencies and through different technologies, whether analog or digital, conventional or trunked.

"The reality is when entities come together, like our highway patrol and our county sheriff, they were on different systems," said Michael Kelley, Transcrypt's general manager. "If one had UHF and another was on 800 MHz, their radios would not shake hands and therefore, they would not talk to each other."

He said each first responder agency using Transcrypt's device would submit a radio to be attached to TIK. The cross-band device basically would link the frequencies of the various radios together into a seamless voice communication system.

Kelley said it works even if one of the agencies has an encrypted voice communications system. It also extends radios' range and runs off radio batteries without diminishing the life of the radios themselves, he added.

So far, Nebraska's state highway patrol and several fire districts in Washington state are using TIK. "Our new product is very small, very simple, easy to use. It's extremely durable and not really expensive," said Kelley, noting that a unit costs $1,999.

M/A-Com's NetworkFirst converts audio signals into IP digital data packets that are transmitted to a regional operating center. The center then sends the digital messages over a private intranet connecting multiple radio systems, said Jay Herther, the company's federal market manager.

He added that a nationwide network could be formed by linking existing systems — of all makes, modes and frequencies — and combining them into regional operating centers. "It makes it so the technology is future-proof and you can continue to upgrade," he said, adding there's no limit to the number of users for this technology.

He added NetworkFirst is cost-effective compared with developing a new radio system and buying new radios.

"It's a variable cost depending on how many agencies and users, but typically it's less than 10 percent of the alternative of upgrading the system," he said.

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