M/A-COM said it has provided the city of New Orleans with its NetworkFirst IP-based radio communications system to help the city prepare for this year's hurricane season — which officially began last month — at no cost to taxpayers. The system will be used to provide interoperable communications between the city's police, fire and emergency medical departments, the Louisiana State Police and public-safety agencies in surrounding parishes.

NetworkFirst is an upgrade over the city's legacy EDACS system, which was first deployed in 1995, according to John Facella, M/A-COM's public-safety marketing director. Facella said the new deployment is costing the vendor “several hundred thousand dollars” in equipment and related services.

“We're anxious to show the world that we continue to support our customers in New Orleans,” Facella said. “There has been a focus of press on New Orleans, and it never hurts to let people know that we're still there and active as the city's vendor, and that we're still thinking about the city as we were during Katrina, when we sent a lot of people down there to help out in the relief effort.”

The system will be in place through the 2007 hurricane season, Facella said.

“The city is, to some degree, still trying to dig its way out of Katrina,” he said. “The city administration has been very busy on many issues … and we recognized, as the city's vendor, that they were consumed with all of the stuff they had to do. So we decided to remove one issue from their plate, which is how we were going to improve interoperability going forward.”

In addition to the obvious public-relations benefit of providing the system free of charge, M/A-COM hopes that the city will be impressed enough to purchase the system in the future, Facella said. “At the end of [the second storm season], there is always the hope that the city will be happy enough with it that they may decide to purchase it,” he said. “But that's not a requirement, and we've been very clear to the city that, after two storm seasons, if they don't like NetworkFirst, we will happily — with a smile on our face — disconnect and move on.”

Although stating it is too early to consider such a scenario, F.G. Dowden, regional liaison for communications interoperability for the city's department of homeland security, didn't dismiss the possibility. “That's certainly not out of the question,” he said. “But two years from now, the makeup of the communications systems in the region could change significantly.”

Facella believes the city will like NetworkFirst, given that it offers several distinct advantages over New Orleans' legacy system. “The interoperability that they have with the EDACS system is quite good, but it is more than 10 years old, and the state of the art has advanced such that we can do it now using IP,” Facella said.

The FCC's independent panel examining the impact of Katrina on communications systems cited the lack of interoperability as a major problem in the aftermath of the catastrophe. In some cases, military personnel were forced to resort to runners to deliver messages, while in others messages were dropped from helicopters (see sidebar).

According to Dowden, the NetworkFirst system will help. “It will allow outside agencies coming into the region to talk over our radio systems, which certainly is an improvement over what we had after Katrina,” he said. “This is crucial any time you have outside agencies responding [to an incident].”

One advantage the NetworkFirst system gives users is the ability to create priorities within interoperability connections. “We could, for example, give a specific interoperability talk group a higher priority on system resources than other ones, and — in some cases — we can give specific users a higher level of priority,” Facella said.

Like EDACS, NetworkFirst offers users the ability to invoke interoperability talk groups from the field, by turning the channel-selector switch on the radio.

“This is very important, because quite often the dispatcher and the other centralized resources are very busy … and the officer on the scene has to make a quick decision,” Facella said. “In traditional incident-command management, usually the first officer on the scene — regardless of the agency or jurisdiction — becomes the de facto incident commander until relieved by someone of higher rank or experience. … The command can be passed from person to person, but the first one will want to invoke the interoperability talk group to get all of the other agencies activated.”