As they cut checks to help first responders achieve interoperable wireless communications, federal agencies also are trying to impose more order on the interoperability process. That means making sure the many projects underway across the country work toward common goals and their participants learn from one another, rather than inventing the same wheel over and over.

It also means answering a seemingly simple question that is anything but: What does “interoperability” mean?

“If you talk to three or four people, you get three or four definitions,” said David Boyd, director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's SAFECOM program. Popular definitions include allowing all responders at an incident to communicate, allowing only the commanders of responding agencies present at an incident to communicate, or allowing responders from different agencies to communicate with one another by means that don't necessarily involve radios, Boyd said.

SAFECOM coordinates federal government efforts to help federal, state, local and tribal public-safety agencies build radio systems that allow first responders from different disciplines and jurisdictions to talk together. Last month, it published a statement of requirements (SOR) to spell out what responders mean when they say they need interoperability. (For related coverage, see the cover story on page 46.)

Representatives of SAFECOM asked officials with numerous state and local agencies to describe scenarios that call for interoperable communications. Then they asked them to list the capabilities they need in each case. “We wound up with a set of requirements from medical people, law enforcement, fire [and others] and joint requirements where they have to work together,” Boyd said. Through the SOR, SAFECOM will distill those requirements into a consistent definition.

Meanwhile, SAFECOM also has developed guidelines for federal agencies to follow when they provide grants for interoperability projects. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services used those guidelines last year in a joint program that awarded more than $145 million to 31 local interoperability communications projects. FEMA funded projects totaling $79.7 million in 17 communities, while COPS provided $66.4 million to 14 communities.

Although they issued their grant applications separately, COPS and FEMA published essentially the same solicitation, and they used the same peer review panels and criteria to evaluate proposals, said Mike Dame, supervisory policy analyst with COPS and program manager for its Interoperable Communications Technology program. “We were able to leverage two different federal programs to make sure we weren't duplicating our efforts,” he said. By collaborating, COPS and FEMA conserved federal resources, spared communities the trouble of applying to two grant programs and made sure they spread the wealth geographically, he said.

Congress did not appropriate funds to FEMA for a similar program in 2004, but COPS will offer about $83 million this year. In its appropriation, Congress instructed that this year's grants should focus on data communications as well as voice, Dame said. Congress also has asked COPS to offer grants to smaller communities as well as large population centers, he said. Last year, FEMA asked the governor of each state to nominate one community, which could be of any size, for grant consideration, but COPS focused on major metropolitan areas.

When COPS and FEMA announced their awards last September, one of the communities on the COPS list was the Louisville-Jefferson County, Ky., metropolitan government, which resulted when Louisville and Jefferson County merged in January 2003. The combined government will use its $6 million federal grant, plus $2 million in local funding, to build an interim interoperability solution that will link first responders from the former city and county governments, plus 20 independent suburban fire districts. Eventually, Louisville Metro plans to consolidate all of its public-safety dispatching in a single emergency communications center, said Bruce McMichael, criminal justice specialist with the Louisville Metro Criminal Justice Communications Commission.

Louisville Metro will achieve interoperability in the near term by building a five-site UHF simulcast system, “where we would suck in as many UHF channels as are available here locally,” McMichael said. Louisville Metro also has a VHF network at its disposal, which offers countywide coverage, but its four channels are not enough to serve the needs of the police, “plus we don't have great building penetration in the urban area,” he said.

In contrast, the UHF network offers more channels, and simulcasting will allow those frequencies to cover the county. To extend interoperability to responders from neighboring communities in an emergency, Louisville Metro also plans to implement a voice-over-IP system, McMichael said.

Last year, Charlottesville, Va., Albemarle County, the Charlottesville-Albemarle Regional Airport and the University of Virginia jointly received $6 million from FEMA to help develop a radio system to be used by 21 public-safety agencies, plus the airport and regional jail. With a total price tag of $19 million, the project includes a new 800 MHz Motorola radio system that will be used by all participants, said Charles Werner, deputy fire chief at the Charlottesville Fire Department, who wrote the grant proposal.

Charlottesville-Albemarle will interface the radio system with a “parallel network” of Nextel phones, Werner said. The phones will provide an alternative pipeline in case the 800 MHz system becomes overloaded. Also, when the main system is operating, anyone with a Nextel handset will be able to talk to anyone on the radio system.

“We'll take one of the phones and plug it into a patch that has a talk group specifically assigned to us,” Werner said. This will provide interoperability for responders who are not on the public-safety network and allow people using 800 MHz radios to talk to people in other parts of the country who have Nextel phones.

Plans also call for a voice-over-IP interface, which would enable responders who encountered an unusual hazard to consult with experts anywhere in the world via an Internet connection. In addition, Charlottesville-Albemarle will purchase a Raytheon/JPS Communications ACU-1000 interconnect system and an incident commander's radio interface. Each of these devices allows responding agencies to interconnect different communications media, such as VHF and UHF radios and mobile phones, to form a single network.

“Those devices give us quick, instant interoperability at the scene of an incident,” Werner said. “We can plug up any radio on the scene and create an ad hoc network right then and there,” allowing anyone who shows up, with any kind of equipment, to join the conversation.

The FEMA and COPS grant programs give recipients one year to complete their projects. Federal officials acknowledge, though, that procuring and implementing the technology is not an overnight process. Participants will receive an automatic 12-month extension on their deadlines, Dame said.

While these projects get underway, SAFECOM is launching a small program to explore technologies that have yet to be harnessed for interoperability. Now that they have defined the capabilities public-safety agencies need, the next question is, “Where are the gaps?” Boyd said. “What are the things we cannot do now?”

Later this spring, SAFECOM will issue a Broad Agency Announcement soliciting proposals for operational tests that use some new technologies. Among other possibilities, those might include “radio over IP” and software-defined radio, Boyd said. With only $6 million to award, the program will probably fund just four to six projects, Boyd said. SAFECOM expects each test to involve one or more public-safety agencies as well as technology providers.

When the pilots are completed, SAFECOM will publish the results. “It's a matter of sharing what works and what doesn't with the other folks, so they don't repeat the same mistakes and they can take advantage of the things that went well,” Boyd said.

2003 COPS Grants
Community Funding received
Baltimore $5.1 million
Boston $3.2 million
Columbus, Ohio $2.5 million
Houston $4.9 million
Indianapolis $6 million
Kansas City, Mo. $2.7 million
Las Vegas $6 million
Los Angeles $6 million
Louisville, Ky. $6 million
Nassau County, N.Y. $6 million
New Orleans $5.5 million
Newark, N.J. $2.8 million
Orange County, Fla. $6 million
San Jose, Calif. $3.7 million
Total COPS $66.4 million
Source: COPS
2003 FEMA Grants
Community Funding received
Charlottesville/Albemarle County/U. Va. $6 million
Clallam County, Wash. $5.8 million
Conway, Ark. $2.1 million
Erie County, N.Y. $6 million
Grafton County, N.H. $2.2 million
Harrison County, W.Va. $5.7 million
Independence, Mo. $5.5 million
Lewis & Clark County, Mont. $4.5 million
Monroe County, Mich. $6 million
Narragansett, R.I. $3 million
Ramsey County, Minn. $6 million
Rehoboth Beach, Del. $2.5 million
St. Clair County, Ill. $6 million
Tulsa, Okla. $0.84 million
Westmoreland County, Pa. $6 million
Woodbury County, Iowa $6 million
Worchester County, Md. $5.6 million
Total FEMA $79.74 million
Source: FEMA