Interoperability equals working together.” So says Roman Kaluta, manager of public safety communications interoperability at equipment vendor Raytheon JPS Communications. Simple as that sounds, managing communications so agencies can work together when first responders converge at an incident is in practice a complex job. To aid the effort, JPS has assembled a team of four “Subject Matter Experts” to help public-safety agencies choose the technologies and craft the policies and procedures needed to enable interoperable communications.

JPS announced its SME initiative in March at the IWCE show in Las Vegas. The idea is to connect customers with public-safety practitioners who understand their needs. “It's easier for a cop to talk to a cop, a fireman to talk to a fireman,” said Kaluta, who retired from the Alexandria, Va., Police Department before joining JPS. His fellow SMEs come from backgrounds in firefighting, emergency communications and the FBI.

Part of Kaluta's job is to help customers contemplate and define the type of interoperability they want to achieve before they choose equipment to tie together existing radio systems. “Do you want it just to be on-site with simplex communications?” he asked. “Or do you want the ability to do wide-area communications and be able to link two, three, four different radio systems?”

Perhaps the most important aspect of his work is helping customers spell out in detail how members of different agencies will work together in the field to overcome the incompatibility of their disparate radio systems. “There have to be memoranda of understanding and mutual aid agreements, and there have to be policies and procedures,” Kaluta said. For example, they must decide who will talk with whom, and who will control the switch that links different radio systems.

Many agencies already have agreements in place to describe how they will work together at an incident, but these don't always effectively address the gritty details of managing radio communications at the scene, according to Kaluta. “The biggest fear that a lot of our users have is what [happens] if four people show up with one of these switches and everybody turns them all on at the same time?” he said.

The SMEs can provide copies of policies and agreements that other agencies are already using, Kaluta said. They also share advice about interoperability from federal initiatives such as the Public Safety Wireless Network (PSWN) and Advanced Generation of Interoperability for Law Enforcement (AGILE) programs. “That's our main charge, to go over those things and make sure they've considered them,” he said.

While JPS helps on the planning end, Nextel Communications is offering on-the-scene services to augment communications during an emergency or planned event.

Nextel's Emergency Response Team (ERT), founded in 2002, offers the mechanism to set up multi-agency communications over Nextel's commercial wireless network. The ERT's main tool is the Satellite Cell-On-Light Truck (SatCOLT), a mobile cell site that boosts coverage in a Nextel service area or provides service in a remote region where the carrier has no infrastructure.

Housed on a Ford F-650 Super Duty truck, the SatCOLT is designed to be “rapid-deployable, transportable and fully self-sufficient,” said Matt Foosaner, an ERT senior director stationed in Dulles, Va. It includes a 70-foot cell tower and a satellite antenna to link the site to Nextel's nationwide network. The site is powered by a 15-kilowatt generator and carries enough diesel fuel to run for 10 to 12 days, he said.

When the SatCOLT arrives at an incident, ERT members distribute Nextel's Motorola-built wireless phones to personnel at the scene. Combined with Nextel phones already deployed by responding agencies, these allow users from different organizations to talk to each other via the carrier's Direct Connect push-to-talk service. The ERT can configure talk groups, “and we can change it on the fly over the air,” Foosaner said. “We never have to touch those radios again.”

Nextel also is installing JPS's ACU-1000 switch on the SatCOLTs, Foosaner said. These can provide interoperability between agencies' own land mobile radios and Nextel's units.

The ERT has assisted in more than 50 field-training exercises and helped during emergencies such as Hurricane Isabel, the D.C.-area sniper attacks and the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. More recently, SatCOLTs were deployed at last month's G8 economic summit in Savannah and Sea Island, Ga., and will be deployed at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions this summer.

Similarly, Burbank, Calif.-based SatCom Systems has developed two mobile satellite communications vehicles, one of which was retrofitted from an ambulance. The vehicles are designed to provide dialtone, two-way radio, mobile data and teleconferencing services to first responder agencies deployed to incidents in rural areas where infrastructure is lacking. “We're trying to bring incident command into the field where it belongs,” said SatCom President and CEO Tom Soumas.

The vehicles, which recently were used by the Riverside County Sheriff's Department at a rave, can be deployed “anywhere in the Western U.S.,”and tap into five satellite systems to provide connectivity, according to Soumas, who added such capability is becoming more critical.

“FEMA responds to an event every day, on average,” he said. “LMR fulfills a purpose, but when you're at an event in the middle of nowhere, it's not just a comfort to have this kind of connectivity, but a necessity.”

Telemedicine, Texas-style

The future of incident management on U.S. roadways could look something like the exercise delegates viewed this April at the annual meeting of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America) in San Antonio. The demonstration of a telemedicine system called LifeLink came courtesy of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), the San Antonio Fire/EMS Department, the University of Texas Health Science Center Department of Emergency Technology, a U.S. Army hospital and several other partners.

LifeLink takes advantage of the fiber optic network that TxDOT has deployed along 100 miles of freeway in San Antonio to support its roadside traffic management cameras. TxDOT has added about 150 specially configured Wireless Ethernet Bridges (WEBs) to this network, providing a 2.4 GHz radio link between the backbone and specially-equipped ambulances. These allow emergency medical technicians (EMTs) on the scene to share bi-directional video, voice and medical data with local hospitals, so physicians can observe patients and lend their expertise during an incident.

During the ITS America meeting, LifeLink participants staged an emergency preparedness drill at the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center. “The exercise scenario was a suicide bomb detonation within the convention facilities,” said E. Sterling Kinkler, Jr., principal engineer in SwRI's Communications Engineering Department. “A LifeLink ambulance in the exhibits became the medical command center.”

Personnel at the scene held telemedicine conferences with doctors at the Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in Fort Sam Houston, Texas, to discuss the condition of the most critical live “victims,” Kinkler said. The system gave BAMC a view of the situation inside and outside the ambulance and outside the convention center. Participants also displayed a vest equipped with a video camera, which can transmit images to the ambulance over a narrowband microwave radio, for relay to the hospital via the LifeLink system, Kinkler said.

As an ambulance travels along the equipped portion of San Antonio's freeway network, its onboard WEB usually can “see” two or three of the fixed wireless units on the roadway, ensuring that it is always in communication, Kinkler said. TxDOT plans to expand the fiber optic network and the installed base of WEBs, he said. “It will eventually cover something like 250 miles of streets and highways in the county.”

Along with conducting research and demonstrations, EMTs have used LifeLink in several real-life emergencies, Kinkler said.

In the future, the system will support other applications as well. TxDOT and SwRI have demonstrated the use of mobile cameras and WEBs in traffic incident management vehicles to transmit video from a highway incident to San Antonio's traffic management center. Personnel in the truck could also use the wireless network to obtain video from fixed cameras on other portions of the road network, Kinkler said. “If there's an accident or an incident, they'll use those images to plan where they need to be.”

Also, SwRI and TxDOT successfully tested integration of LifeLink with a satellite network to provide communications between a disaster scene and a medical command center, Kinkler said.
— Merrill Douglas