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Communicating to Save Lives

SOLDIERS CALL IT THE “FOG OF WAR” when they must fight ignorant of the events occurring around them or, worse, cut off from their commanders. The same dangerous situation can arise in emergency response, when separate agencies trying to coordinate their response cannot communicate because their radio equipment is not compatible.

Achieving that type of interoperability has been a goal since 9-11. While it sounds straightforward, it has proved to be surprisingly difficult to achieve. At a hearing on the issue, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) called it “deeply unsettling” that communications interoperability “is still elusive.”

The cost of replacing legacy systems, combined with some remaining technological and operational issues, has slowed the move to full interoperability, but states and localities are making progress due partly to congressional directives being carried out by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Federal Directives

While DHS’s leadership of national interoperability efforts has evolved over time, the common thread is its SAFECOM program, a consortium of state and local officials and federal agencies that has directed national interoperability assessments, provided guidance to all levels of government, and helped prioritize federal investment in research and development.

In 2004, along with the establishment of DHS’s Office of Interoperability and Compatibility (OIC), SAFECOM issued its Interoperability Continuum, offering public-safety agencies a simple framework to assess their level of interoperability and guide their efforts.

The continuum divides interoperability efforts into five critical areas: governance, standard operating procedures, technology, training and exercises, and usage. Each area bears four or five status benchmarks. Under technology, for example, the continuum begins with sharing of identical radios between agencies, followed by use of gateways or bridges, then implementation of shared radio channels, then shared proprietary radio systems, and, finally, use of standards-based systems.

In April 2008, DHS approved statewide communications interoperability plans (SCIPs) from 56 states and territories, and three months later it issued the National Emergency Communications Plan (NECP).

The NECP sets clear and measurable national interoperability goals and deadlines that incorporate existing national efforts and accommodate existing state plans, says Charles Werner, chief of the Charlottesville, Virginia Fire Department and chair of the SAFECOM executive committee.

Under the NECP, by 2010, at least 54 of the 60 major U.S. cities designated as high-risk in DHS’s Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) program should be able to establish interoperability among commanders from different agencies and jurisdictions within one hour of responding to a “routine” event. DHS defines a routine event as anything short of a major disaster or a terrorist attack.

By 2011, 75 percent of non-UASI jurisdictions should meet that routine-event standard. By 2013, 75 percent of all jurisdictions should be able to achieve interoperability among commanders from different jurisdictions within three hours of a “significant” event, such as major natural disasters or terrorist attacks, which would draw a far larger number of mutual-aid jurisdictions than smaller emergencies.

Operating procedures. Even if all public-safety radios suddenly became interoperable, jurisdictions would still have trouble communicating because they use vastly disparate standard operating procedures (SOPs) for radio communications, including different on-air vocabularies.

The language problem centers on the so-called “10 codes,” originally devised by law enforcement agencies to save time on crowded airwaves. Some of the code phrases are universal, like “10-4,” while others have up to 11 different meanings, depending on the region or jurisdiction. Many jurisdictions use entirely unique codes that evolved over time or were created independently.

The NECP calls for DHS to establish model SOPs for front-line radio communications in 2009, as well as national guidance for “plain English” radio vocabulary to eliminate confusion stemming from local parlance and codes.

In addition, by the end of 2009, the NECP calls for all 56 states and territories to designate a full-time statewide interoperability coordinator. As of late 2008, 42 states had already met this requirement, according to DHS.

Technological Issues

The primary technical obstacle to voice interoperability among the legacy communication systems first responders now use is band separation.

Radio frequencies occupy a segment in the bottom half of the electromagnetic spectrum, below microwaves, visible light, and x-rays, from 3 Hz to 300 GHz, measured by their waves’ rate of oscillations per second. AM radio, for example, sits in the low frequency (LF) range, below 3 MHz.

FM radio is in the very high frequency (VHF) range, straddled—at least for now—by two separate bands of broadcast television, all between about 50 and 200 MHz. Ultra high frequency (UHF) transmissions, including television, fall between 380 and 800 MHz.

Until recent decades, nearly all U.S. public-safety radios relied on analog signals in either the VHF bands, between 136 and 220 MHz, or in the UHF range, between 450 and 520 MHz.

Recent technology has allowed mobile radio communication in the higher 800 MHz range. Many of the country’s larger public-safety jurisdictions that can afford it have migrated to the 800 MHz band to use digital radio systems. The higher frequency allows for more efficient use of smaller bandwidth, and newer hardware allows “trunking,” a process by which radio systems can automatically direct transmissions into narrow slits of free spectrum and set up predetermined “talk groups” on dedicated channels.

Within the three radio bands—UHF, VHF, and 800—public-safety agencies rely on a latticework of seven smaller, separate bands, with different agencies licensed to use still smaller bands and individual channels at the state and local levels.

Analog over-the-air car radios are easily switched between bands, such as AM to FM, but the land mobile radios used by U.S. public-safety agencies can only operate in one band.

The reason for the one-band setup, explains Richard Mirgon, president of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO), is that the radio systems were all engineered for cost and reliability within fixed geographical areas, meaning no dead zones and no crashes amid heavy usage, as happens to cellular networks during major emergencies.

John Powell, Chairman of the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council’s (NPSTC) Interoperability Committee, takes the example of California’s newer regional radio networks. They have what he calls “5.9 reliability,” meaning they are operational all but a total of six minutes every calendar year, which equates to less than one second of down time each day. The systems also have at least two days’ backup power in the event of major power outages.

This reliability is gained at the expense of interoperability; it’s a trade-off. Remove most of the country’s public-safety radios from their home jurisdictions, and they’re useless to communicate with other jurisdictions. (Methods for bridging radio systems are addressed later in the “Operational fixes” section.)

Manufacturer standards. This year marks 20 years since the government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, the telecommunications sector, and stakeholder groups led by APCO set out to draft a suite of technical standards for public-safety communications equipment, with the goal of making all systems universally interoperable.

When they set out in 1989, the stakeholders expected the process, called Project 25 (P25) to take only a few years. Yet by 2001, not a single standard in the suite was complete. Absent broad demand for interoperable equipment, and with manufacturers staking their livelihoods on proprietary systems, completion of P25 was not a high industry priority.

With the paradigm shift that followed the 9-11 attacks, and the accompanying prospect of an expanded market for new emergency communications hardware, everyone involved in P25 redoubled their efforts. Still, progress was slow. By 2007, the body had completed only the first standard, called the common air interface, which would allow two compliant radios to communicate regardless of proprietary features.

The second—and perhaps most important—standard, called the inter-RF subsystem interface (ISSI) standard, is nearing completion. It will allow the user of a compliant portable radio to roam between different host systems. While sections of the standard are incomplete, vendors like M/A-COM are already fielding network infrastructure that complies with the ISSI’s specification document, which precedes final testing documents.

A critical factor limiting purchase of P25-compliant radios is cost. Noncompliant radios might cost $500 or less. P25-compliant radios, which typically also offer high-end features like digital trunking and encryption, can range from $3,000 to $5,000 per unit.

To address that issue, DHS has awarded more than $2.5 billion in interoperability grants to states and localities, with the stipulation that they use the money to purchase P25-compliant units.

Luke Klein-Berndt, chief technology officer of DHS’s OIC, calls P25 “the perfect solution” for an end state, but acknowledges that agencies cannot afford to replace existing systems until they have reached the end of their useful life, which often takes decades.

One official indicated that states have stretched grant funding by purchasing less-expensive units that are P25 capable, with upgrades, as opposed to being P25-compliant out-of-the-box.

Apart from cost, doubts persist about whether the radios will actually provide interoperability. OIC, which is part of DHS’s research and development Science and Technology Directorate, has launched a P25-compliance assistance program to verify whether products actually perform as intended. OIC expects to certify testing labs for the program this year, Klein-Berndt says.

Operational fixes. The manufacturer-directed standards are taking the industry so long to develop that they may become moot, because as workarounds being implemented effectively solve the problem. Among the solutions currently in the field are the following.

Bridging. The same digital technology that has allowed voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) as a cheaper alternative to traditional telephones can link separate radio systems regardless of band, signal type (analog/digital), or manufacturer.

IP bridges, such as Raytheon/JPS Communications’ ACU-1000 and SyTech’s Radio Interoperability System (RIOS), can be configured to receive audio from nearly any standard source—radio, cell phone, push-to-talk, or land-based telephone; they can then process the data digitally for retransmission.

The component-sized systems can be deployed in a mobile unit during a response, or they can be co-located with repeaters—towers that receive and amplify mobile transmissions—to link different radio systems across jurisdictions.

VoIP technology has also facilitated interoperability across agencies, essentially allowing individual first responders to roam between jurisdictions, absent the P25 or ISSI manufacturer standards. Cisco Systems’ Internet Protocol Interoperable Communications System (IPICS) links separate jurisdictions via its dispatch centers using VoIP.

In jurisdictions using the IPICS system, networked communication and dispatch centers are linked using dedicated high-speed Internet lines. Based on talk groups, which in this case are essentially virtual radio channels, radio traffic on one radio system can be transmitted to outside systems and broadcast within them if desired. The IPICS system also provides an IP intercom system between dispatch or incident management centers.

IPICS is in use by at least a dozen public safety entities around the country, including the state of West Virginia, the Maryland Office of Emergency Management, and five fire departments in the Northeast, says Lindsay Hiebert, Cisco senior manager of marketing for emerging technologies. An IPICS server, a router, and user licenses for a moderate-sized public safety agency might start at between $3,500 and $5,000, which Hiebert points out might buy as few as 10 new digital over-the-air radio handsets.

Multiple frequencies. Perhaps the most obvious interoperability solution is multiband radios. Nearly all U.S. military radios can operate across bands, but a model had not been engineered and marketed for nonmilitary use until recently.

Melbourne, Florida-based Harris Corp., one of the main manufacturers of this equipment, has developed a new multiband radio, called the Unity XG-100, intended for use by public-safety agencies. The P25-compliant radio is software-defined, as opposed to relying on traditional electrical hardware components, making the radio’s functions more malleable than traditional handsets.

The XG-100, however, cannot reach everyone. In its current form, the model will only operate in the 700-800 MHz bands, not in the lower VHF or UHF bands, where most smaller U.S. public-safety agencies still operate. Further, the Unity will operate at the high end of the cost spectrum, at roughly $5,000 per handset.

Caches. While not technologically sophisticated, the most common strategy currently used by jurisdictions to ensure communications interoperability is simply to stockpile their own type of radios so that they can be distributed to command personnel from outside agencies on the fly when they show up to render assistance at a large event or in an emergency.

The cached radios provide a critical link with incident managers, while the visiting commanders are still able to communicate with their own personnel via their own radios in standard “talk around,” meaning from radio-to-radio, absent their home repeater towers that would extend radio range beyond line of sight.

Among those using this strategy are agencies in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and in New York City. Lt. Wes Rogers of Fairfax County Fire and Rescue says that caching has been highly effective around the nation’s capital area for major regional events and disaster response, such as occurred with the 9-11 attack on the Pentagon.

Testifying last summer before a hearing of the Federal Communications Commission, New York Fire Department (FDNY) Chief Salvatore Cassano said the agency guarantees interoperability during large responses through two means: First, 200 designated interoperability radios have been issued to department leaders citywide; they are capable of communicating with radios issued to leadership in other city agencies. Second, the FDNY has four vehicle-borne repeaters incorporating ACU-1000 bridges, allowing near-universal voice interoperability.

DHS launched its RapidCom program in 2004, distributing radio caches to the country’s 10 largest and highest-risk urban areas to facilitate their move to interoperability. Seeded by the RapidCom program, the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region cache consists of 1,250 digital hand-held radios staged with separate jurisdictions, all interoperable with the region’s fire and rescue systems. Critics worry that cached radios may not work when needed, but Rogers says the problems posed by critics can be avoided through proper maintenance of the cache and regular training on distribution and use.

Equally important, before radios are handed out to commanders from visiting jurisdictions during an event, they are locked into a designated interoperability channel, rendering them nearly foolproof. Separately, commanders from visiting jurisdictions can manage their own personnel on their own radio systems. “You don’t want everybody talking on the same channel. You don’t want that, you don’t need that,” Rogers says.

The Right Mix

Werner, chair of SAFECOM’s executive committee, says that his region has achieved robust interoperability through collaborative governance and a simple funding structure. Those factors, aided by a $6 million federal grant in 2004 that was matched by regional investment, have helped the region implement a suite of technical applications.

Werner’s region includes three major public-safety jurisdictions: Charlottesville, Albemarle County, and the University of Virginia. In the early 1990s, as the jurisdictions considered replacing existing systems, they came together to build a shared, 800 MHz radio system that went live in 2004. Start-up and operational costs are divided by jurisdiction based on the number of users in each. “We tried to keep it as simple as possible,” he says.

In addition to their radios, area officials carry Sprint NEXTEL Corp. push-to-talk phones that can now be linked directly to the radio system via an IP bridge. During a mutual-aid response by outside jurisdictions, SyTech RIOS bridges can connect them to local responders’ radios.

Werner’s department maintains satellite communications capability in the event that ground-based transmission infrastructure is unavailable. The system, provided by Mobile Satellite Ventures since 2007, is unlike traditional satellite telephones in that it provides one-to-many talk capability and has minimum dedicated spectrum to ensure availability.

But it’s not really the technology that makes the program succeed. Based on his experiences, Werner says that achieving interoperability is “90 percent people and 10 percent technology.”

A supporter of the NECP and DHS’s locally driven approach to interoperability, Werner says no technology is a silver bullet, and that jurisdictions must pursue the best remedies they can afford.

“You have to be careful about dictating the solution,” Werner says. “We have to dictate the outcome, and let people do the best they can with what they already have in place, because not everybody can afford the ideal.”

Joseph Straw is an assistant editor at Security Management.