A couple of weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology (DHS S&T) Directorate coordinated a demonstration of voice interoperability between six different manufacturers’ systems using a new Bridging System Interface (BSI).

During the demonstration, gear from Motorola, SyTech, Valcom, Cisco Systems, Clarity Communications Systems and Twisted Pair Solutions were connected via the BSI, and communications were conducted in a scenario format involving state, county and local jurisdictions operating on separate bands.

DHS officials were careful to note that the BSI is not a standard, but a specification that leverages commercial voice-over-IP technology. Equipment that allows disparate radio systems to interoperate via an IP platform is nothing new, but that doesn’t mean that the various bridging systems easily interoperate with each other, said Dereck Orr, program manager for public-safety communications standards for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

“Just because it says it’s IP doesn’t mean it’s interoperable,” Orr said. “We needed to get that word out to public safety and to policymakers, as well.”

However, by using IP commonalities, program participants—DHS, vendors and public-safety representatives—were able to establish a BSI specification that typically has not been terribly difficult for manufacturers to incorporate in their solutions, said Luke Klein-Berndt, chief technology officer for DHS S&T.

“We were looking for that common technical space and work there,” he said. “We wanted to come up with the best technical solution but also come up with one that didn’t mean dramatic changes for anyone.”

On the surface, the idea of getting multiple vendors that compete with one another on a daily basis to work together might seem to be a difficult proposition, but DHS officials insist that wasn’t the case. The logistics coordinating vendor representatives’ schedules were a challenge, but once they were at the same table, “things really started to flow,” Klein-Berndt said.

DHS deserves a lot of credit in making this happen. It’s nice to know that IP-based connectivity systems should be able to work together, but it’s much more valuable to first responders to know that they do work together and to be able to cite a specification in bid documents.

Such interoperability is important because federal officials estimate that as much as $100 billion has been spent on public-safety LMR systems across the country, so that’s not an investment that can be overhauled overnight. The LMR systems are going to be around for a long time, so technologies like the BSI are valuable in making that happen.

Of course, the BSI is not the only DHS interoperability initiative. The federal department also is spearheading development efforts for multiband radio, radio over wireless broadband (ROW-B), and even an ingenious system that gives helicopter pilots homeland-security surveillance assignments that can be accomplished during their return trips from missions.

By themselves, none of these solutions are the answer to interoperability—there is no single “silver bullet” that will solve the problem. But with each successful DHS project, public-safety communications officials are given another tool that will let them build a solid foundation for interoperability, both now and in the future.

E-mail me at donald.jackson@penton.com.