The State of Alabama has been working tirelessly to accomplish statewide interoperability. They faced the same communications problem that many other states are facing today — they were using several different types of legacy communications systems that operated on disparate frequencies.

“The ability to communicate with other first responders and different public-safety agencies is one of the core capabilities that must be attained,” said Jim Walker, director of the Alabama Department of Homeland Security.

The cost of purchasing new communications systems for the entire state was too expensive to fund and would take an incredible length of time to accomplish. State officials instead began to look at different ways to meet the operability and interoperability needs of first responders at the local, regional and state levels.

Recently, significant progress has been made in completing this task. The state now has interoperability over a 10-county area and is currently working to expand its new wide area interoperability system (WAIS), manufactured by Raytheon's JPS Communications, to several fixed sites throughout the state.

The Alabama Department of Homeland Security oversaw and funded the state's efforts to achieve interoperability and enhance the ability of public-safety agencies to access and provide real-time voice, data and video capabilities.

First, the state developed a strategic plan to integrate the various systems, using existing infrastructure whenever possible to keep the costs down. A comprehensive state communications interoperability plan was formulated, incorporating several different technologies to achieve the stated goals.

The state then conducted an extensive evaluation of different communications technologies that would meet its immediate need to provide operability and interoperability during daily and emergency operations. They needed to ensure the selected technology would provide an IP-based capability, allow for expansion, and incorporate new and legacy systems.

Alabama decided to invest in multiple ACU-1000 intelligent interconnect devices with the idea to eventually set up a WAIS throughout the state. The technology adopted was based on joint evaluations by state and local representatives to formulate a standard that would be used throughout the state.

All counties used a phased-implementation approach, with mobile response vehicles outfitted throughout each of the response regions. One of the counties to implement the new technology was Jefferson County, which includes the largest city in the state with the largest population.

Jefferson County encompasses multiple cities that use a variety of dissimilar frequencies and technologies to achieve communications. Systems used within the county include 800 MHz Motorola SmartZone digital trunking, 800 MHz Motorola Smartnet analog trunking, UHF LTR trunking, UHF conventional, VHF conventional and iDEN push-to-talk technology provided by both SouthernLINC and Sprint Nextel, among others. This wide range of systems made it virtually impossible to achieve reliable, real-time voice communications.

Previously, the county achieved communications through a time-consuming method of relaying messages from dispatch center to dispatch center and then — eventually — to field personnel. When the need arose to communicate with more than two agencies or with an agency from a neighboring county, such communications became increasingly more difficult or virtually impossible.

To solve these problems, Jefferson County's Emergency Management Agency (EMA) contracted with Allcomm Wireless to provide a complete turnkey solution that used WAIS software from JPS, six stationary ACU-1000 sites, and one ACU-1000 system in the EMA's mobile command vehicle.

The six stationary sites were strategically located around Jefferson County to deliver complete coverage and interoperability within the county as well as regional coverage outside the county. Each of the six sites included two ACU-1000 systems, 22 control stations and two telco lines.

The control stations are equipped with the technologies already used in Jefferson County and the surrounding areas, and each is preprogrammed with multiple frequencies and talk groups that are of known necessity. This provides Jefferson County with 132 different known resources already up and running.

Given the goal of achieving wide area interoperability throughout the region and eventually the entire state, Jefferson County sought approval from each surrounding county to include their communication systems into the mix to provide the ability for regional coverage.

“Today, we have the ability of complete interoperability within our county as well as nine additional counties surrounding Jefferson County,” said Allen Kniphfer, director of the Jefferson County EMA.

Moreover, by leveraging the iDEN technology that is used throughout Alabama — including the 67 local EMA offices, EMA headquarters, and most law enforcement agencies and medical providers in the state — Jefferson County has virtually a statewide network available in an emergency situation.

The EMA's mobile command vehicle employs one ACU-1000 with 11 control stations and two voice-over-IP telco lines. The command vehicle, although an interoperable solution in itself, can be linked into the wide-area network via the on-board satellite communication system.

Since the deployment of the interoperability solution, Jefferson County's EMA has seen the system grow within the surrounding agencies. For example, the sheriff's department is now adding the technology to its mobile communications platform. Also, the city of Hoover, located within the county, has added the same technology to its mobile command solution.

“In addition to the first phase of the interoperability solution, we have added a second resource by linking together a 4.1 SmartZone trunked system with a 7.X SmartZone trunked system utilizing the NXU-2 technology and control stations to achieve even a wider footprint with our interoperability,” Kniphfer said.

Jefferson County's interoperability solution is linking several agencies across the surrounding nine-county area, including fire, medical, law enforcement, the department of health and several others that get involved during an emergency.

“[These] systems are allowing us to be able to cross frequency and technology lines. [They] also will allow us to cross county lines and assist our neighbors in their time of need if we are called upon. With a few clicks of a mouse or a couple of channel and talk-group changes, we are now able to talk with virtually anyone we need to when it comes to emergency response,” Kniphfer said. “We have demonstrated interoperability can be achieved when agencies work together and share information and use of resources.”

Jefferson County's EMA is planning to add additional dispatch points within the county. Officials plan to connect these dispatch points, using the WAIS software, with the newly established wide area interoperability network.

The wide area interoperability efforts of Jefferson County parallel those being implemented by the State of Alabama in its efforts to enable statewide interoperability. Alabama is now in the third phase of its deployment of the WAIS. Currently, the state is bridging its land mobile radio systems, mobile assets and strategic operations centers — over IP infrastructure — with all other major populated areas throughout Alabama.

As with any technology, setting up training, policies and procedures is of utmost importance for successful operation. Alabama is committed to ensuring the system users are properly trained and familiar with the procedures.

“We will continue to expand our capabilities utilizing this system throughout the State of Alabama in an effort to enhance our existing, local and state, interoperability,” said the state DHS' Walker.

Roman Kaluta joined Raytheon JPS Communications in December 2002 following his retirement from the Alexandria (Va.) Police Department after 25 years of law enforcement service. He specializes in all applications of JPS' interoperability technologies, with a particular focus on regional and wide area system integration with LMR and IT infrastructures.