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Land mobile radio: Why moving to IT makes sense

By leveraging the combined technical expertise and practices of its IT department and traditional LMR radio personnel, the city of Richardson, Texas, was able to install an open-source P25 system for public safety and realize considerable cost savings, according to Richardson CIO Steve Graves.

By Steve Graves, city of Richardson, Texas

When I started in information technology (IT) more than 35 years ago, I programmed mainframes that occupied an entire room and had less computing power than today’s cell phones. Technology has certainly come a long way since then and it’s constantly changing and evolving, which means the way we handle and manage it must be equally flexible and innovative.

Prior to 2007, the land-mobile-radio (LMR) system in the city of Richardson, Texas, was managed and run by our public-safety department. That year, the city decided to move responsibilities related to the LMR system--including installation, management and oversight--into the IT department. This allowed us to leverage technical expertise, existing infrastructure and management visibility, and it let us better position the city for the next generation of public safety technology.

The decision proved to be a good one for us, and today we’re equipped with a state-of-the-art, open-source LMR system that not only increased our radio coverage and system reliability, but it saved the city $5 million in upfront costs and more than $80,000 per year on technical leasing and maintenance fees. More importantly, we are better able to serve the citizens of Richardson through smarter and more effective use of human and technical resources.

Moving to IT makes sense

Depending on the size of the agency involved, LMR systems have historically been managed, operated, and maintained by either a monolithic radio department, or they are operated by a member of a law enforcement or fire department thrust into the responsibility. Radio workgroups usually consist of people very skilled in the nuances of delivering RF to users, equipping and maintain a fleet of radios, and the myriad of day-to-day requirements that such systems bring with them. Departmental delegates usually depend on vendors or consultants to figure out and operate the more complex parts of the system, while the manager mainly handles purchasing and day-to-day management.

IT departments, on the other hand, must support a wide and rapidly changing inventory of hardware and applications, and they typically support an entire agency, rather than a narrow subset of it. This is necessary to avoid costly duplication of resources and accidental purchases of systems that cannot work with existing systems without additional purchasing. IT departments also tend to be very good at project management, as annual purchasing brings in new systems each year. They often support a wide range of communications equipment, servers, specialty devices and applications, and personnel must either learn fast or fail.

Importantly, IT departments are often very good at managing life cycles of equipment. They understand the need to refresh equipment at regular intervals and, perhaps most importantly, city management is used to receiving budget requests from IT to replace equipment that has exceeded its serviceable life. Monolithic radio departments often have great difficulty just convincing decision makers of the need to keep radio equipment current. Such a purchase often conflicts with other budgetary needs, such as additional officers, fleet vehicles or equipment. As a result, radio projects tend to be expensive, because they nearly always require total replacement of seriously outdated equipment.

Managing our LMR system from the IT department makes sense for all agencies involved. Beyond the confluence of technology and skill sets, mission-critical communications require 1005 reliability. Increasingly, other city services managed by the IT department are becoming nearly as vital to the government—and the citizens it serves—as public safety. As a result, IT has morphed from a 9-to-5 job to a 24/7 job, which means the department is better prepared to effectively and efficiently service critical systems like LMR. When considering the added benefits—including response time—of having on-staff technical expertise that stretches across all systems, the case for IT-managed public safety systems is even stronger.

With the development of Project 25 (P25) and IP-based components, the operational components of an LMR system had expanded beyond the technical expertise of the radio-focused public-safety department and would have required outside consultation. Even more, the IT department has much of the existing infrastructure—data servers, fiber-optic lines, networking components—that allow a city to reduce the system’s overall cost to taxpayers.

The continued role of public safety in LMR

Moving an LMR system to the IT department does not render public-safety technical personnel obsolete. In fact, the opposite is true. Radio experts remain a critical part of the team as LMR systems are designed, installed and maintained.

Their technical and operational understanding and years of experience helped us at the city of Richardson to define our needs; for example, coverage needs, user needs, fleet-management needs, and idiosyncrasies of individual departments—all skills traditional IT staff seldom possess. The knowledge and expertise of radio experts also can expand the effectiveness of other communications networks, making their experience more valuable to the agency as a whole. And, as this personnel are exposed more to IT-related equipment such as switches, routers and fiber optics, their value to the marketplace increases, as well.

Best practices

Below are a few major points of advice for anyone exploring the benefits and logistics of moving LMR from public safety to IT.

·         Do not fear the project. This goes for both the IT and the public-safety departments. IT departments may shy away from an added responsibility, particularly one with such stringent performance demands. However, the fundamentals of LMR systems are essentially IP protocols and networking—things IT department already know and do well.

For the public-safety department, the perception may be that the transition will eliminate their duties and positions. This is not the case. As mentioned earlier, their value to the agency and the market increases.

·         Build the team and communicate. As the project kicks off, bring all crucial players together and discuss specific roles and responsibilities. Additionally, it’s important to convey the value each person brings. Everyone is on the team for a reason and it helps to reinforce the unique skills and abilities each person contributes.

·         Welcome and value all input. Radio experts, IT experts, officers, consultants and others will have varying perspectives on a variety of issues. It should be made known that those perspectives are welcomed and valued—the team’s diversity ensures due diligence in implementing the most effective LMR system. But the key is keeping your word and truly valuing this input.

·         Apply the best principles of the combined assets. One precept IT brings to the table is an absolute understanding of the need to avoid proprietary systems and to purchase standards-based, interoperable equipment. Richardson has been fortunate to partner with Airbus DS Communications—known as Cassidian Communications at the time—and it has been a great partner. The company’s open, standards-based system provided a foundation on which we could build the perfect land mobile radio system.

Instead of being confined to a proprietary solution, we were able to select the radios and network components that best fit our needs and budget. They often took the lead and acted as our point person for operability issues with all other vendors, like Motorola and Avtec. In addition, Motorola has never failed to rapidly assist us with integrating their subscriber units with the Airbus DS Communications system, and our experience with these multiple vendors has just been great.

All of these practices enabled the city of Richardson to purchase and maintain the best LMR system for us—one that is open, improves our coverage, saves us money and increases the confidence of our users and our citizens. I hope that they can do the same for you and your community.

Steve Graves is the CIO for the city of Richardson, Texas.

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