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Crisis Collaboration: Beyond Radio

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Originally Published in our July, 2008 issue.

by Morgan Wright, CISCO Systems

Say “interoperability” and most policymakers immediately think new Project 25 (P25) radio systems.  True, your radios might be due for an upgrade.  But public safety agencies can serve the public interest by educating policymakers that funding new radios alone will not satisfy other urgent interoperability requirements for effective crisis collaboration:

First responders who are out of radio range might need to join a talk group using cell phones, smart phones, traditional phones, IP phones, or laptops.

Situational awareness improves when first responders can supplement radio communications with images, real-time video from incident scenes, hazmat databases, floor plans, and other information delivered to a laptop or PDA.

Even with their new P25 radio, first responders still cannot talk directly to their counterparts in adjoining cities, states, and counties using different radio technologies.

Citizens today expect to be able to communicate with public safety answering points by using their cell phones to send text messages and images or video of incident scenes. 


Interoperability: Time for a New Definition

In fact, what public safety really needs in the twenty-first century goes beyond radio interoperability to comprehensive communications interoperability.  The end goal is for first responders and other government personnel to be able to communicate using any communications device (new or legacy radio, smartphone, traditional phone, IP phone, or softphone) with any media (voice, video, text messages, and data).  This more comprehensive kind of interoperability enhances public safety by providing greater situational awareness and enabling a unified chain of command.

Fortunately, a proven solution for communications interoperability already exists: sending radio traffic over the government’s existing IP network, just like any other kind of voice, video, or data traffic.  With an IP-based approach to interoperability, first responders, commanders, and government executives can join radio talk groups using any type of communications device: radio, phone, or other.  And PSAPs can take advantage of IP networks to accept text messages and images sent from callers’ cell phones.  A sampling of public safety agencies already taking advantage of IP-based communications interoperability includes:

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Boulder, Colorado:In areas where radio coverage is not available, SWAT teams and bomb squads communicate over the IP network using PSTN phones, cell phones, and IP devices.  And the county can now afford to provide radio capabilities in even its smallest substations by installing radio-emulation software on PCs, which eliminates the need to purchase an expensive radio console.

Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC): When GFC collaborates with other agencies for incident response, dispatchers can quickly set up a virtual talk group that personnel can join using any radio system or special software on their PCs.  By replacing its analog leased lines with an IP network, GFC has eliminated $60,000 to $70,000 in annual costs.

Lincoln County, Oregon: To prepare for tsunami response, in March 2008 the county staged an emergency preparedness drill in which police, fire, rescue, and utilities departments from the county and adjoining communities successfully joined  talk groups using push-to-talk radios, cell phones, satellite phones, and laptops.

City of Danville, Virginia: Multiple law enforcement and emergency-response agencies in the Danville use the IP network to communicate across jurisdictional boundaries.  This spared the city the expense of upgrading an entire infrastructure to a common radio system or frequency. 

The Barrier: Not Technology, but Education

With such compelling benefits, why isn’t every state and county already funding IP-based communications interoperability?  Often, the answer is a lack of understanding about what interoperability is—and is not—by the policymakers who make funding decisions.  A common misperception is that new radios are sufficient to enable effective crisis collaboration.  Public safety personnel can help by educating their elected officials that interoperability technology purchases should not be tied to a single technology, such as a radio, or to a single vendor. 


True Interoperability at Fraction of the Time and Cost

Consider the experience of State of Missouri Department of Public Safety.  The department’s radios, purchased in the ‘70s, are unquestionably due for an upgrade.  The state plans to replace them with a 700MHz digital trunked radio system, which will cost $200 to $300 million.  Completing the project will take about a decade, as the state builds the additional towers needed to accommodate the shorter transmission range of the 700MHz frequency.

Rather than rushing headlong into the project, state policymakers came to recognize that while the department definitely needs new radios, radios alone will not solve the state’s interoperability requirements.  That is, the 800 state troopers who receive the new 700MHz radios will still need a way to communicate directly with other state, county, or local government personnel who use other types of radios, are out of range, or do not even have a radio.

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In response, the State of Missouri is currently considering an IP-based collaboration system that will work with its old radios, new 700MHz radios, and local agencies’ radios, as well as other types of devices available to public officials, including smartphones, cell phones, analog phones, IP phones, or laptops or PCs with the appropriate software.  The new system can be implemented within a few months, giving the Department of Public Safety a reliable interoperability solution until its digital trunked radio system is complete.  Even then, the investment will continue to pay dividends because state troopers will be able talk directly to local public safety personnel using other radio technologies and other government officials who use other devices.  The cost: just $5 to $10 million—a fraction of the radio upgrade. 


Return on Investment

Why so inexpensive? Like other state and local governments, the State of Missouri already has most of the solution in place, in the form of its IP network.  Using the existing IP network to carry radio traffic requires only the incremental addition of a hardware and software solution for interoperability and collaboration.  Any town in the state will be able to participate in talk groups simply by purchasing a router and software licensing, typically for less than $10,000.

Furthermore, the same IP network that a state or county agency uses for crisis collaboration can provide a return on investment for myriad government departments besides public safety.  For example, an organization using an IP network for communications interoperability can also add a wireless extension to its network to eliminate service trips annually to read meters.  Imagine a city where each round trip takes 30 minutes and uses one gallon of gas, the city can estimate a regained 13,500 man-hours (6.5 full-time employees), and a savings of $100,000 in fuel costs at $4 a gallon, significantly reducing its carbon footprint. 

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Interoperability Primer for Policymakers

By educating state legislators and local policymakers to understand what radio interoperability is and is not, public safety officials can strengthen first responders’ and government executives’ ability to protect life and property.  Policymakers are best prepared to make effective funding decisions for public safety communications systems when they understand five points:

Narrowband voice technology was invented 50 or 60 years ago, and broadband is the future.  IP is an efficient way to interconnect them during the transition.

By adopting communications technologies based on open standards, public safety agencies avoid tying themselves to a single technology, such as P25 radios, or to a single vendor.

An effective communications interoperability solution cannot impose an unrealistic financial burden on adjoining cities and counties that need to participate.  Cities and counties should be able to participate in talk groups using their existing radio systems, no matter how old, and should not be expected to purchase new radios.

Public-private partnerships provide economic advantages all around.  For example, Goodyear, the manufacturer, asked the City of Danville if it could connect its plant to the city’s IP collaboration system.  The city is acting as the service provider, and Goodyear will fund its piece of the connectivity as well as a portion of ongoing maintenance and support. 

The investment in IP-based collaboration delivers returns whether or not an agency replaces its radios.  It provides an interim interoperability solution during the radio upgrade, and enables collaboration with devices other than radios indefinitely.  Everyone wins: the first responders who gain increased situational awareness and the communities they protect.

Morgan Wright, who leads Cisco’s global public safety and homeland security solutions program, has over 24 years experience in law enforcement, justice and intelligence in both the public and private sectors.  He has been an instructor for the US State Department, Diplomatic Security Service, Antiterrorism Assistance Program, and is currently on the Board of Directors for the Integrated Justice Information Systems Institute (IJIS), a non-profit organization dedicated to solutions in justice and public safety. 


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