An early challenge was building a statewide radio system for the University of California police, which covered nine campuses at the time. It was a VHF system, and the interesting twist on all of it was that the primary channel that was assigned was 155.475 MHz. Of course, just about the time I got into this, the FCC decided to reassign it as a national law-enforcement channel, which meant we had to find a statewide VHF channel that was usable. And even in 1973 that was no easy task.

Trunking products really started to hit the street in the mid-1980s. Within a couple of years, when everybody starting to realize they were incompatible with each other, we started to see a push that resulted in P25 being formed in 1989. At the time, all of us naïve public-safety folks thought we could do this on our own without any help and we could do it in about two years. We got an education really fast.

Meanwhile, people started to see the efficiency of trunking. The capacity increase was probably the main attraction, plus the additional features you could get off a system — it was nothing compared to what you can get off a digital system today, but it was still significant.

The next thing that folks realized was that, the larger the system got, the bigger the benefits were, because of the way trunking works to share physical resources. Then people started to see the benefits of doing that not just for public safety but for their entire government enterprise and the benefits of everybody being able to talk to everybody else, whether it was talking to public works or the building inspectors being able to talk to the fire department — whatever was needed.

Of course, training always is an issue when you switch technologies. We've got horror stories from around the country about agencies that just gave people new radios when going to a new technology, whether it was going from conventional to trunking or going from analog to digital.

I like to look at it this way: A law-enforcement officer uses his radio on every call, probably multiple times. In his career — if he's lucky — he'll never use his firearm. However, he is required in most states now to train on that firearm and show proficiency with it at least four times per year. Isn't there a disconnect there somewhere? If you haven't used the interoperability channels in 10 years, you're not going to use them in a major event — and all at once, the communications efficiency for managing that event has gone into the toilet.

It's going to be an interesting next few years. A lot hinges on what happens with 700 MHz broadband. Some people say that, with convergence, you won't carry your LMR radio with you anymore. I would suggest that that time is a long way off. You're going to have a major buildout of public-safety-grade infrastructure before you start seeing people give up their voice radios. That's a long ways off. Will it eventually happen? I think the opportunity certainly is there. — as told to Donny Jackson

John Powell is senior consulting engineer for the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council.