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Interoperable Communications Technologies Need Uniform Testing Standards, Official Says

05/27/2010 -The lack of a uniform product testing program for emergency communications equipment means first responders could buy radios they believe are interoperable but fail to deliver during a disaster, a government official told Congress today.

Dereck Orr, program manager for public safety communications standards at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), told the House Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation that unlike other wireless technologies, such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi,  public safety radio manufacturers have not created a "formal and uniform compliance assessment and certification program" to ensure they followed the standards correctly and that interoperability was achieved.

(For more on interoperability standards, see "Interoperability Standards Stalled?" from the August 2007 issue of Security Management .)

Under Project 25, or P25, public safety radio and systems manufacturers and the federal government have worked together to create standards that ensure different companies' radios purchased by different agencies can communicate with each other during large emergency responses. While interoperable standards have been in development since 1989, tragedies like 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina—and the specter of something similar or worse—has made achieving them more urgent.

But manufacturers, Orr said, have used the standards to sell their products without ensuring they actually achieve interoperability.  "The P25 logo has instead been used by manufacturers as a marketing logo to convey to users that their product was developed to P25 standards specifications," Orr said. "However, many public safety agencies that we speak with incorrectly assume that the logo is a certification stamp signifying the completion of a formal and uniform test regime."

Past testing has also demonstrated that products advertised as P25-compliant were not, said Dr. David G. Boyd of the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate.

"A few years ago, it was discovered through testing that much of the equipment advertised as P25-compliant was unable to interoperate with P25 equipment manufactured by other companies, and, in some cases, even with earlier P25 equipment manufactured by the same company," he testified.

John Muench, director of business development for Motorola, which manufactures P25 equipment, however, said that lack of interoperability may not be the fault of manufacturers but that of users if they do not configure the technology correctly.

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