ORLANDO -- The universal feeling these days in the public-safety sector is that the technology to achieve interoperability already exists -- in the form of cross-patch and IP-based systems -- and that the real problem is a lack of regional planning needed to establish consensus on how to leverage the existing technologies. We have heard this repeated so often of late that it is approaching mantra status.

The only problem, according to Steve Rauter, chief of the Lisle-Woodridge Fire Department in suburban Chicago, is that the premise is flawed, if not altogether wrong.

Speaking at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials conference here yesterday afternoon, Rauter said that crosspatch and IP-based systems -- even next-generation technologies such as Project 25 and software-defined radio -- aren't the answer to solving the interoperability conundrum. Rather, Rauter proposes the development of "in-the-hand" solutions, perhaps based on current ham and FRS radio technology.

I hear from Rauter often, and his ideas always are interesting, albeit occasionally radical. He acknowledged that this particular idea falls under the latter category by offering the unusual disclaimer at the beginning of the session that his views on the subject "don't fit the SAFECOM model," and that they're not shared by APCO.

That doesn't mean the public-safety sector shouldn't listen to him.

Rauter isn't fond of crosspatch systems because "letting everybody talk to everybody is a lot like a loaded gun. You're setting yourself up for a secondary disaster. In the wrong hands, it can be dangerous"

He's even less enamored of IP-based systems.

"I would prefer zero dependence on IP," for mission-critical communications, he said. "It tends to be a fragile protocol, and I want something I know is going to work when I'm sending people into a burning building."

A primary limitation of P25, Rauter added, is that the standard doesn't address spectrum use, a crucial consideration for most, if not all, public-safety entities. Another is that the development process continues to be sloth-like. "P25 is almost old enough to vote. It's about 18 years old, and it's nowhere near completion," he said.

Of course, P25-compliant radios also are quite expensive -- as much as $5000 per radio -- which puts them out of the financial reach of many agencies. Rauter told his audience of a United Kingdom-based vendor that has produced a TETRA-compliant radio -- the European equivalent of P25 -- that costs only $300. "What are we doing wrong?" Rauter asked rhetorically. "Why do I have to spend $5000 for a fully loaded P25 radio."

While software-defined and cognitive radio show promise for solving the interoperability riddle, they too have limitations, Rauter said, primarily cost and form-factor. One solution would be to dumb them down from what is currently being used by the military. "A simple multi-mode, multi-band software-defined radio would be a good first step," Rauter said. "That would solve most of the problems in Illinois, where police generally is on the UHF band and fire is on the VHF band."

But such products are a long way off. In the meantime, Rauter said public safety should take a look at amateur radio units already on the market that offer dual- and multi-band operation -- and cost around $300, which would put them in reach of any first responder entity. He also said several FRS radios on the market offer the same functionality and said the military currently is developing an FRS radio that personnel could use for non-mission critical "chit chat."

Of course, such radios would have to be ruggedized for public-safety use. But Rauter said that shouldn't be a problem, as several vendors -- he specifically named Kenwood, Vertex Standard and ICOM -- already make radios for both the commercial and public-safety sectors. "Why can't we get something like this for public safety? I've been asking that question for years. These radios have been around for decades, and some of them meet or exceed military specifications," he said.

At the end of the session, Rauter asked whether his views had merit. Several in the room said they did, and no one declared him a heretic. For my part, I don't know whether he's hit upon the answer to the interoperability riddle. But I do know he's asking the right questions.

E-mail me at gbischoff@mrtmag.com.