Nearly two decades before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, emergency personnel from Washington, D.C. learned an important lesson in how to work together.
During the evening rush hour on January 13, 1982, in the middle of a snowstorm, an Air Florida 737 jet crashed on takeoff from National Airport. Half an hour later, across town a commuter train derailed. Numerous municipal and federal agencies responded to both of these incidents but were hampered when they discovered that they couldn't talk to each other -- their radios were incompatible with each other. In addition, what few frequencies were available soon became overloaded.
The resulting confusion, delays and inefficiencies were the impetus to begin developing common standards for public safety operations. Committees, working groups, and consortiums generated hours of testimony and reams of paper to address these problems. But even with all of their efforts, how far have we really come?
Two decades later, despite good intentions and a lot of hard work, confusion, delays and inefficiencies plagued the investigation of sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C. area in 2002. More than 1,000 law enforcement officers and analysts were involved, coming from several cities, three states and the federal government. Because the department radios issued to these officers didn't work with other agencies (sound familiar?), hundreds of very expensive portable radios were handed out, programmed to work over a brand new digital system in Maryland. Many investigators simply used cellular telephones. Some senior officials made use of wireless personal digital assistants to send and receive electronic mail.
Although it's self-evident that the ability for public safety personnel to communicate with each other is critical during emergencies, what does it take for this to happen?
The first step is getting equipment that can work together. Radio equipment for public safety agencies is currently available in several frequency bands, determined primarily by historical licensing decisions by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Older systems typically use VHF and UHF frequencies, while new systems commonly operate in the 800 MHz band.
One size does not fit all, even for frequencies. Generally speaking, systems operating in the 800 MHz band perform well in dense urban environments, while VHF and UHF systems are more appropriate for rural areas where they can provide greater coverage. There are patchwork solutions that can pass traffic between these frequency bands, but they're expensive and don't always work well.
Even if the radios can talk to each other, there often aren't any available channels to use. Trunking technology can help in using the existing channels more efficiently, but the next frontier is 700 MHz, which holds the promise of open, unencumbered bandwidth. It's currently allocated to UHF television channels 52 through 59, but is scheduled to become available in a few years. There are a number of proposals pending at the FCC as to how best use this space -- some good, some not so good. As the final decision-maker, the FCC must establish rational rules about how the 700 MHz band is to be used. Poor decisions will simply duplicate the problems that currently exist in other bands and are especially acute in 800 MHz.
There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 emergency response agencies in the United States. Nearly all of these agencies use some type of Land Mobile Radio (LMR) technology. Much of this equipment is proprietary and will only work with radios built by the same manufacturer.
In 1989 the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) began work on Project 25 to establish a set of open, publicly available standards for efficient narrow band digital communication. Instead of a proprietary system provided by a single equipment manufacturer, these open standards allow any number of manufacturers to produce compatible equipment. This allows some degree of healthy competition, potentially lowering prices for everyone.
Phase I of these standards is complete and quickly becoming commonplace, especially in large metropolitan areas. The federal government has specified Project 25 equipment for nearly all of their new systems, so future interoperability will require the use of these APCO standards.
Local jurisdictions typically cannot afford to build their own system. Even small systems run into the millions of dollars, where a single radio can cost several thousand dollars.
A potential solution is to follow the model used by such states as Colorado and Michigan, where the state government provides a basic network and invites local jurisdictions to join. In Minnesota, the Metro Public Safety Communication System covers nine counties, including the Twin Cities. It operates a common "backbone" of repeaters and related equipment, providing basic services to nearly 5,000 radios in Hennepin County alone; twice that are expected across the system when it reaches full deployment. The backbone cost $36 million to install, which was shared among the various participants.
If planned and equipped correctly, this type of cooperation can also solve much of the lack of capacity problems plaguing metropolitan radio networks.
Who is in charge here?
Although much progress has been made in addressing technology, interoperability is more than just getting radios to talk to each other. It requires procedures and processes to cure the jurisdictional conflicts and command struggles that occur when multiple agencies have to work together. This is perhaps the most difficult part of all, to create a true partnership focused on a common goal.
So, to summarize, several things need to happen:
Until these things can happen, the citizens of this country will continue to be at risk from a lack of interoperability.
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© 2003, Signal Harbor