Talk radio

Project advances standards for interoperability

Just as the USB standard lets you connect a PC to different hardware devices, Project Safecom officials expect the P-25 standard to let different narrowband radios work with one another.

By October, the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials is expected to approve the first complete set of standards to promote the development of wireless communication devices that can interoperate regardless of manufacturer.

“This moves us forward a lot,” said David Boyd, manager for Project Safecom, which is one of the 25 Office of Management and Budget e-government projects and one of two initiatives managed by the Homeland Security Department.

Open standards

“No single standard was complete enough to cover all the elements or ... open enough to avoid problems with proprietary interfaces or protocols,” he said. “This will give us a set of open standards that says what the signal should look like, so everyone can decode it. It will work like the Internet does.”

P-25 received a boost over the past year from DHS and other federal agencies including the National Institute of Standards and Technology. DHS provided funding, while NIST is developing interoperabilty testing standards.

Craig Jorgensen, project director for Project 25, said NIST’s standards would let vendors create commercial test labs for equipment to ensure products can talk to each other.

Jorgensen said the project team was working closely with DHS and other federal agencies. “The standards process can be lethargic, and progress becomes difficult. But through our relationship with DHS, NIST and others, we will have something to get us started.”

He said P-25 would offer backward compatibility for older radio systems.

“If there is a hurricane in Florida, emergency workers from Utah can go there and their radios would work,” Jorgensen said. “The real payoff still is years away, but states are aware of it, and as they upgrade their systems they will buy systems that meet the standards.”

Along with P-25, Boyd said the Safecom project team worked with Virginia to develop a statewide communications interoperability planning guide. Now Kentucky and Nevada are doing the same thing in two other DHS-sponsored pilots.

Using methodology developed by DHS, Virginia surveyed fire, police and emergency medical workers to find out what the interoperability problems were, what barriers existed and how they could be overcome.

From those focus groups, the commonwealth’s Interoperability Coordinator’s Office led the creation of a statewide plan, said Chris Essid, who leads the office.

“The very people who depend on the radios are the ones telling us what interoperability is and what it is not,” Essid said.

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) signed a bill requiring all state agencies and local governments to comply with the plan by July 1, 2015.

The state already is using the plan for its Statewide Agencies Radio System, a 22-agency VHF band network that will link with all local networks as well, Essid said.

“Virginia did this very well, because the governor made it clear he supported it and placed someone in charge of it,” Boyd said.

Next stop: 50 states

Nevada and Kentucky are expected to finish their plans by early- to mid-2006, he added.

“The next step after the pilots [is] for all 50 states to work to connect together so we don’t have 50 separate jurisdictions,” Boyd said.

The National Governors Association is lending its support to the project, developing a series of courses to help states apply the ideas Safecom has generated, Boyd said. DHS also will work with the associations representing counties and cities to develop similar implementation courses.

Meanwhile, Safecom is conducting a study to determine the status of state and local governments’ in- teroperable wireless communications systems. Boyd said his office expects to complete the baseline survey by Dec. 31.

“We will identify what the gap is and what will it take to close it,” he said.

Boyd said it could take 20 to 30 years before the total wireless communications infrastructure is upgraded, but in the short time Safecom has been in place, state and local governments have made progress.

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