Local channels

Justice project helps bring comm interoperability to metro areas

Every emergency or disaster, whether natural or man-made, is different in how much, if any, warning it gives, how hard it hits and the destruction it leaves in its path. The only thing such events may have in common is the lack of communications interoperability that hampers first responders in their aftermath.

Communications interoperability problems had frustrated public safety agencies for years, but after the events of 9/11, the public outcry to solve those problems grew louder.

The House and Senate Commerce, Justice and State appropriations subcommittees ordered the Justice Department to come up with criteria to identify areas at high risk for terrorism threats and do something about the interoperability problem.

In June 2003, Justice’s Wireless Management Office drew a bead on it. To fund the department’s new High-Risk Metropolitan Areas Interoperability Assistance Project: The 25 Cities Project, said Michael Duffy, WMO’s CIO, “we carved out $25 million from our department budget.

“It’s important to stress that this project was a collaboration with state and local jurisdictions,” he said. “There were few, if any, instances where we or any federal agency could go in and drop a solution. It had to be state- and local-driven. They’re the folks who have the most knowledge of their systems and needs, and frankly, they’re the ones who have the most at stake.”

All 25 cities that were invited to participate in the project had populations greater than 1 million, a transportation infrastructure and communications interoperability gaps. But no two had the same gaps.

Different levels

“Everyone was at a different level in their infrastructure, in the technologies that they were using,” said McRae Smith, who until October 2003 was the FBI’s deputy program manager of the Public Safety Wireless Network program, the joint Justice-Treasury Department program that was precursor to the Homeland Security Department’s Safecom communications interoperability program.

“Each implementation was different in that it was designed to address each area individually,” Smith said. “DOJ, instead of approaching the 25 cities with a solution, did a wiser thing—they sat down with the locals first.”

That request alone proved beneficial in Honolulu. “It brought more federal, county, state and city [representatives] together to work, and that’s something that hadn’t happened before,” said Les Nakamura, administrator of the state’s Information and Communication Services Division.

“Everyone tends to stay in their own jurisdiction,” Nakamura said, but working together on the 25 Cities Project “has changed the way we work. It’s been a nice thing for us on the technical side, too.”

At first, the city simply wanted a fiber-optic cable to cross a street and connect a federal network hub with a state network hub, Nakamura said.

But techies from state and local government, Justice and other federal agencies, and prime contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. came up with a more ambitious solution.

They decided to build a free-space optical network that uses line-of-sight technology for optical bandwidth connections of up to 1.25 Gbps of data, voice and video communications, with no need to dig up a street and lay cable.

More than simply tying two networks together, Nakamura said, the project provided “a four-node laser ring, with federal, state, municipal and the Honolulu City Police buildings each being a node. Each building will be a connector site for the jurisdiction’s groups, and each will have a fixed interoperability switch, an ACU-1000, with each node serving as a gateway to connect to the ring and access other nodes on the ring.”

Raytheon-JPS Communications Inc.’s ACU-1000 audio gateway switch was built as a deployable tactical device, said Smith, now business development manager at JPS.

But the company’s development of wide area interoperability software allows for mounting the device at a fixed site and using existing networks, such as microwave, to tie disparate systems together, he said.

Denver had several ACU-1000s and could use more, said Dana Hansen, superintendent of communications at the Denver Police Department.

But more sorely needed—and what they got from the DOJ project—was a mobile communications vehicle.

Yet another solution was needed in the sprawling Washington national capital region, with its staggering number of state, county, municipal, district, federal and military agencies.

“The grant helped the Metropolitan Council of Governments finish producing the interoperability user’s guide,” said Capt. Eddie Reyes of the Alexandria, Va., police department.

Identifying assets

“The guide is a secure document that describes what kind of assets, such as handheld radios and repeaters, that an agency has, the location of all our radio towers, the systems and how they’re accessible,” Reyes said.

Consultants from Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. collected the information from each national capital area agency. “But police departments aren’t going to just tell anyone that kind of information,” Reyes said, “so before they’d go to talk with anyone, I’d set it up.”

Before the guide existed, he said, “many agencies didn’t even know what they had. Sometimes, during debriefing after an emergency, someone would talk about a problem and someone else would say, ‘Well, why didn’t you use such and such a channel?’ And they’d say, ‘We have that?’”

“Every police department gets a hard copy of the guide, and it’s available via a secure Web site.” With the guide, he said, “we’re able to put critical information on communications into the hands of first responders.”

‘Modest effort’

“But it’s important to understand that, in the larger scheme of things, this was a modest effort toward interoperability,” CIO Duffy said.

“It doesn’t solve the problem. What it does is, in some way, provide state and local jurisdictions some additional ability to communicate with agencies, to let agencies communicate with each other in an emergency or a preplanned event, such as the conventions in New York and Boston.”

The 25 Cities Project is over now, but WMO’s interoperability efforts are not.

As DHS, Justice and other agencies make grants for interoperability projects, WMO will be there, Duffy says. “My office will be trying to leverage what we’ve learned ... to provide technical assistance.”

Sami Lais is a freelance writer in Takoma Park, Md.

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