Talk isn’t cheap
Maturing technologies address the high cost of radio interoperability for state and local first responders
Just because Danville, Va., isn’t directly affiliated with any county, it doesn’t mean the city doesn’t have a regional perspective. When Danville police engage in a high-speed car chase through the town, there’s a good chance that state highway patrol officers will respond from Virginia and from North Carolina, just over the border. Support may also come from adjacent Pittsylvania and Caswell counties, the latter also in the neighboring state.
Incidents like these remind Danville police officers of the plight they share with public safety officials nationwide. Because each jurisdiction uses different land mobile radio (LMR) systems, effortless communications remains more a dream than a reality.
Instead, officers typically radio their dispatchers in midpursuit. The dispatchers, in turn, phone dispatchers in adjacent jurisdictions to relay chase updates and determine what kind of backup is available.
“There are problems with the timeliness and the accuracy of information being passed along,” said Maj. Dean Hairston, a Danville police officer.
That may be changing. The five jurisdictions are banding together in a test project set to go live this month that will use special hardware on a high-speed IP data network to translate voice communications from incompatible radio systems. This will enable dispatchers, commanders and officers in the field to talk using their current handset devices.
“We thought this is a good chance to try to find a solution to a problem that has existed for a while,” Hairston said.
Danville’s communications woes occur at local, county, state and regional levels nationwide. Large-scale disasters like the 2001 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina have spurred state and local officials to seek interoperable LMRs for first responders.
“Every emergency is local, no matter how big it is,” said John Powell, a consultant and chairman of the National Public Safety Telecom Council’s Interoperability Committee. “It’s the local responders that are going to be dealing with it first, and they’ve got to live with the aftermath.”
But years of homeland security grants and other federal funds to help pay for radio integration efforts haven’t solved the problem. There has been some progress within municipalities, as a particular jurisdiction’s police, fire and EMS departments generally see acceptable LMR interoperability, but communications among adjacent authorities still must contend with a mix of legacy VHF, UHF and 800-MHz systems using different frequency bands.
LMR nirvana ultimately may come if everyone moves to industry-standard Project 25 digital systems and handsets. But for now migration is slow and financially challenging for most state and local decision-makers — which leaves many public officials considering stepping-stone technologies.
“There’s a big desire to achieve interoperability using existing investments,” said Kate McCurdy, analyst of government technology at Datamonitor, a market research firm.
Options include starkly practical ideas, including having nearby towns and counties agree to buy radios compatible with those used by adjacent communities for mixing and matching depending on who needs to collaborate in a particular emergency.
More manageable alternatives include purchasing new technologies, such as gateways that can translate communications among various frequencies. Another possibility is the so-called network strategy being adopted by Danville, which converts radio communications into packets that can flow across data networks.
Others options target future compatibility with a long-range migration path to the P25. Each technology choice offers its own set of pluses and minuses.
The P25 standard represents the ultimate solution for radio interoperability. Supporters of this digital radio standard, which has been evolving for more than a decade, hope that whenever jurisdictions upgrade their radio systems they will choose P25 systems, and eventually everyone will be on the same wavelength.
New versions of the standard make it more reliable among departments that communicate via P25 equipment from different vendors. In the past, different interpretations of the protocol led to
Michigan was among the first to deploy P25 equipment statewide, and many other state and federal agencies have followed.
But P25 still faces many challenges. Because radio systems generally enjoy long life spans of 10 years or more, system replacements happen slowly. Cost is another hurdle. Municipalities must erect new radio towers and distribute new P25 handsets costing $4,000 to $5,000 apiece to public-safety employees.
“Most of us have acknowledged that in the radio business, P25 is the standard that we should build to,” said Dan Brown, special projects manager for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA). “But just to be able to put a system in place that would cover our area would be a funding nightmare.”
Studies estimating the cost of a P25 system covering the more than 500 municipalities in Georgia have ranged from $75 million to $300 million, he said.
Another drawback gaining attention is that P25 only addresses LMRs, while gateway and networking options tie together radios, cell phones, IP phones and videoconferencing devices.
Gateway to compatibility
Gateways connect disparate LMR systems together through system-to-system patches or by converting voice to IP packets. Choices include products from Raytheon JPS, Motorola, Maycom and SmartLink Radio Networks.
“Gateways are a good interim solution that help organizations identify communications resources to be shared,” Powell said.
However, unless gateway users migrate to a common standard like P25 they may find themselves regularly upgrading the equipment to accommodate evolving LMR technologies, he added.
Nevertheless, gateways have become an important component for LMR interoperability in Georgia, which uses Motorola’s Motobridge technology.
GEMA is the lead agency for communications in the state and is responsible for statewide and southeast regional emergency management and homeland security. Its IP approach now covers more than 50 percent of Georgia’s municipalities and by the end of next year 88 percent will be within the framework. The remaining, less populous counties will come into the fold sometime in 2008. The deployment began early last year, and Brown estimated GEMA will spend about $11 million by the end of 2007.
“With this particular product, we don’t care what [LMR] you bring to the table,” Brown said. “We can take your audio and make it interoperable with another system. We’re creating a common denominator using an IP platform.”
In a similar effort, a wide range of state, local and federal agencies in and around San Francisco are working to achieve interoperability using an IP audio gateway from SmartLink. Initially, five new cross-band repeater stations throughout San Francisco Bay will accommodate existing state and local interoperability frequencies for VHF, UHF-T and 800-MHz bands. The project is adding two new digital narrowband interoperability frequencies in the VHF High and UHF federal government frequency bands.
The gateway provides a central hub that all of those systems can tap into. “We didn’t have enough money to provide new radio systems. For the most part our solutions are tying together existing radio systems,” said Robert M. Zanger, attorney and adviser with the Department of Justice’s Wireless Management Office.
With the Smart Link platform, when field people press Push to Talk on a two-way radio, they come in on the channel that’s allocated for multijurisdictional communications, Zanger said.
“So if you need to talk to a [Drug Enforcement Administration] agent on UHF and at the same time talk to a city and county police officer, it would go out on the UHF and 800 MHz frequencies at the same time,” he said.
The project has spent about $5 million so far in its current equipment procurement phase, said Steve Scott, a SmartLink sales director. Parts of the system are scheduled to be operational by January. Future expansions will bring expenditures to $11 million, Scott said.
The network approach connects radio towers directly to network routers that house an LMR gateway for converting radio transmissions into IP packets. “Once it becomes an IP packet we can share it over the network,” said Morgan Wright, global industry solutions manager for public safety and homeland security for networking vendor Cisco Systems. Other suppliers of the technology include Awins and Codespear.
Advantages of the networks include the ability to handle a variety of UHF and VHF analog radios, digital LMRs, IP phones and cellular devices as part of a larger migration to integrated voice, video and data convergence using IP networks. Like gateways, this approach builds on existing radio systems rather than requiring investments in new LMR technology.
There are also drawbacks, which include the proprietary nature of the equipment. Mixing and matching gateway hardware from different vendors can uncover incompatibilities, Powell said.
“Everybody says ‘It’s all IP,’ but IP is just a carrier, he said. “Some of the [products] are better for digitized voice than others.”
He also warns that organizations that choose this approach need enough network bandwidth to create secure private communications that can accommodate voice communications without unacceptable delays and packet losses.
Thanks to an existing fiber-optic network, Danville had the right intranet capabilities in place when it decided on its current test project.
Before the project, Danville officials were discussing plans with neighboring jurisdictions to either join together on common frequencies or install repeaters to extend the city’s radio footprint. “The IP network approach seemed to be much more affordable,” Hairston said, adding that Cisco is picking up the tab with the understanding that maintenance fees might be charged once the system is running.
Once the jurisdictions determine which radio channels they want to dedicate to the project, they install a router and server that act as a LMR gateway. A PC with management software connects to the server and gives department heads a control console to create talk groups as incidents arise.
Initial plans called for Danville’s public safety and public works departments to go live this year and test the system for six months. Then decisions will be made about possible phased deployments among the adjacent counties and nearby areas across the state line.
The network’s ability to connect LMRs and other communications devices bodes well for future innovations, Hairston said.
“We looked at it from the standpoint that if we engineer for today, then tomorrow we’ll be behind,” Hairston said. “We have to look at what are the emerging technologies.”
Livingston County in Michigan uses a similar system, but instead of permanently connecting data network routers to radio towers, the county opts for IP-based portable units from Codespear that can ride in emergency vehicles for ad-hoc programming at incident scenes.
Thanks to a common 800 MHz radio system, officials within the county communicate easily with each other. But problems arise when Livingston employees collaborate with surrounding areas.
When something big happens
In the past, dispatch centers would have to relay messages from one jurisdiction to another. Now, the county uses Codespear’s SmartMsg and Radio Interoperability Module to bridge LMRs.
The portable units also allow officials to send emergency alerts to a variety of devices, including LMRs, pagers, cell phones. The county spent about $70,000 for four of the devices, proprietary cables and associated computers, which included discounts for Livingston’s early adoption of the technology.
The unit, about the size of a paperback book, has four ports — one for each of the radio types that are used within a particular state or community or region. So for example, port 1 may be an 800 MHz digital radio. Port 2 may be VHF. Port 3 would be UHF.
Special cables for the book-sized devices contain microprocessors that store information about various UHF, VHF, and 800 MHz systems. Responders need to bring the appropriate cable to incidents to match the radios collaborating jurisdictions use.
Prices for the devices and four cables start at $10,000, with additional units selling for $5,000, said Bob Marsh, national sales manager for Codespear.
In addition to employing such technology in local incidents, the county has used the portable devices to help with large political rallies and concerts that were supported by surrounding officials. “A couple times we’ve gone to [the state capital] Lansing and tied together disparate radio systems so people would be able to communicate,” said John Waters, EMS supervisor for Livingston County.
Because the county uses the devices regularly — rather than just being backup equipment for crises — officials are familiar with the technology and feel they’re getting a good return on their investment.
“People buy a lot of products for disasters,” Waters said. “The problem is, they can’t remember how to use it when something big happens.”
Joch is a business and technology writer based in New England. He can be reached at [email protected].