For many small police, fire and EMS departments, radio interoperability seems out of reach, as they just don't have the cash to buy sophisticated solutions such as an SUV equipped with Raytheon's First Responder interoperability platform.

However, some small departments have found ways to achieve interoperability without breaking the bank, as affordable interoperability solutions are available on the market — if you know where to find them. Granted, many of these solutions are fairly basic in design and function, but they still do the job.

With a starting price of less than $4500, the Incident Commanders Radio Interface (ICRI) manufactured by Communications-Applied Technologies is one of the least expensive interoperability solutions on the market today.

The ICRI will accept up to five different radio inputs and one telephone input. Two of the units can be connected using the ICRI's RJ-45 port, resulting in a combined unit that can handle up to 12 different audio inputs.

The ICRI also represents the ultimate in simplicity regarding signal switching. It connects to each of the radio's/telephone's microphone and speaker ports, routing conventional voice-activated audio between them, which solves the problem of incompatible radio transmission systems and bandwidths.

Housed in a plain black metal case that measures 10×7×3.5 inches, the 3.3-pound ICRI — which can be powered by a cigarette lighter inside a patrol car or by using the unit's eight AA-battery power pack — won't win any high-tech beauty contests: It even uses legacy-style metal toggle switches. However, what the ICRI lacks in glamour it more than makes up for in ruggedness, said C-AT President Seth Layman. “All the corners are welded, and with the guards around switches, we can drop the ICRI from seven feet, six inches onto a concrete slab and sustain only cosmetic damage,” he said. “The one-inch version built for backpack operation is designed to withstand a Suburban running over it without any damage.”

In 2002, Jefferson County, Colo., purchased two ICRIs to interconnect police, fire and EMS in the jurisdiction's 774 square miles of prairie and mountains. One of these units has been assigned to the Jefferson County Type III Incident Management Team (IMT), while the other is in the care of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department. “We hook together low-band VHF, high-band VHF, UHF, 800 MHz analog and 800 MHz digital radios with these kits, covering every possible responding agency we would anticipate working with,” said Mark Hall, the IMT's communications unit leader. “The Columbine High School shootings were handled by our sheriff's office and all adjoining law enforcement agencies. How we wish we had had this tool [then].”

For those wanting military-standard equipment, C-AT recently created the ICRI-E — installed inside a hardened Pelican case — which meets all MIL 810 environmental specifications. “One of the most interesting aspects of the ICRI-E is that it has to work with an old-fashioned H-250 military handset,” Layman said. “We added an extra port to the ICRI-E to accommodate this handset so that the users wouldn't have to sacrifice an interoperability channel.” The ICRI-E costs “less than $8000,” he said.

Raytheon JPS Communications' ACU-1000 modular interconnect system has become the de facto standard for interoperability, and understandably so. The ACU-1000 can accept up to 12 different radio, telephone and satellite inputs and can be combined with a second ACU-1000 to provide switched connections between 24 different audio channels. Consequently, the ACU-1000 has been widely deployed across America, even by small departments despite its $100,000 per unit price tag.

A case in point: Walworth County, Wis., with a population of less than 100,000, has installed an ACU-1000, a laptop computer and a desk inside a 12-foot trailer. “We had serious radio interoperability issues among the county's police, fire and EMS departments,” said Captain Jay L. Maritz of the county's Sheriff's Department, which handles dispatching duties for all local first responder agencies. “Now that we have the ACU-1000, our problems are solved. Everyone can talk to everyone.”

For those on a tighter budget, the portable ACU-T is an affordable option. Priced at about $11,000, it does everything the ACU-1000 does but in a portable 6.75×6.75×10.5-inch package that can handle up to six radio/telephone inputs. The ACU-T can also be powered directly from a car lighter and weighs 8 pounds.

North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C., bought an ACU-T two years ago, and NCSU deputy director of support services Michael Allen said it has solved the university's interoperability problems. “We use the ACU-T to create interoperable radio patches between the City of Raleigh Police (UHF) and Wake County Police (originally VHF, now 800 MHz) during major events such as football games and mass crowd control situations,” Allen said.

For just a little more money, the $12,500, 20-pound Aegis SafetyNet RadioBridge Solution — built inside a plastic Pelican case — can accept speaker/microphone cables from up to eight different radios. Once connected, the radios' audio can be routed to any one of four channels provided by the RadioBridge. This means that up to four different interoperable talk groups can be created through the device.

Should the unit be left unmanned, these groups will remain fixed because the channel selection is executed using rotary five-position dials. (The fifth position is for set-up purposes.) However, if someone is monitoring traffic at the RadioBridge, the groups can be changed by turning a few knobs. Meanwhile, balancing the audio levels is simply a matter of altering the output from the radios themselves, using their built-in volume controls.

Currently, the Los Angeles Police Department and Anaheim Fire Department both are using the RadioBridge; while neither is small in size or budget, the $12,500 price tag for the RadioBridge also is within the reach of many small departments, especially if the cost is shared among the interconnecting departments.

Mobile phones theoretically still are the quickest and cheapest way to achieve interoperability. When Fire Department A responds to a mutual-aid situation, it simply calls the other departments' dispatch centers by mobile phone and gets patched into their radio networks.

Of course, there are myriad flaws to this approach For instance, commercial wireless networks get jammed by voice traffic during crises, as was proved Sept. 11, 2001. It also is rather inconvenient to keep connecting from one dispatch center to another on a mobile phone, especially during a five-alarm fire when officers on the scene have more important things to do.

One option that solves this problem by combining mobile phone convenience with push-to-talk radio performance is Nextel's Direct Connect service, which uses iDEN technology developed by Motorola. Direct Connect iDEN handsets use GSM technology to connect to regular cellular service and an integrated 800 MHz digitally trunked radio walkie-talkie for direct communications with other iDEN handsets, with the walkie-talkie being patched into Nextel's separate iDEN national network via the closest cellular towers.

Because it is separate, Nextel's iDEN network is safely isolated from heavy cellular traffic, according to the carrier. “This is why we loaned over 8000 Direct Connect handsets to first responders in New York City because our service was unaffected,” said Leon Frazier, Nextel's vice president of public sector sales. In addition, Nextel provides first responders with priority access to its Direct Connect network and gives them price breaks as well: 27% off the cost of new equipment, 20% off accessories and 10% off monthly service charges.

First responders in Charlottesville, Va., have been using Nextel iDEN handsets for years, “but it wasn't until after 9/11 that we realized the importance of Direct Connect not being reliant either on commercial wireless or public switch telephone networks,” said Charles Werner, interim chief of the Charlottesville Fire Department.

The system's ability to serve as a “parallel communications network” has served Charlottesville and regional first responders time and again, Werner said. “For example, our public telephone networks overloaded with calls during a recent tornado warning, which means I couldn't get through to other departments,” he said. “However, with the Direct Connect push-to-talk function, I was able to raise them all by walkie-talkie.”

However, commercial wireless networks are not as robust as land mobile radio (LMR) networks and don't stand up anywhere near as well to natural disasters such as tornados and hurricanes. Consequently, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, in its interoperability handbook released last month, stressed that Nextel's Direct Connect service be used by first responders only as a supplemental service, not as a replacement for a public-safety-grade LMR system (see story page 8).

“Sooner or later, a commercial service is going to go down,” said Susan Kalish, the IAFC's director of corporate marketing.

Glenn Bischoff contributed to this article.