In a public-safety environment, where personnel use handsets from different vendors operating on different frequencies, establishing communications paths between disparate systems has long been a problem — one that was a focal point in the aftermath of 9/11 and, more recently, Hurricane Katrina.

Although the interoperability dilemma has become a hot topic in Washington, the public-safety market has not been void of answers. For instance, there are network-based solutions that typically route traffic over an IP backbone and portable solutions for event management such as the venerable ACU-1000 from Raytheon JPS.

But these alternatives have significant drawbacks, most notably cost and deployment time, according to sources interviewed for this story. Networks are expensive, and even popular portable hardware is not cheap. Perhaps more important, the equipment typically requires trained communications personnel to take so much time setting up that the incident often is under control before seamless interoperable communications can be established.

It doesn't have to be that way, according to officials at Codespear. The Michigan-based software firm has evolved its trademark SmartMsg product from a simple text-message notification tool to a full-fledged interoperability solution that not only lets public-safety entities communicate with each other but also with the people they are trying to protect and serve.

Codespear's ability to enable interoperable communications outside the land mobile radio (LMR) arena is one of the most attractive features of the solution, said Mark Hammond, director and emergency management coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security in Wayne County, Mich.

“The great thing about it is I can be on a PDA — without any voice communications — and talk to a guy that has a cell phone and also have a guy on the conversation with an 800 MHz radio,” Hammond said. “It started out to be a text-messaging system, and now it's just blossomed tenfold.”

FLEXIBILITY IS THE KEY

At the heart of Codespear's solution is its IP-based, patented software. Created to let alert messages reach virtually any device, the Codespear software includes two levels of encryption and began supporting voice communications during the past year, said Greg Campbell, Codespear's co-founder and vice president of technology and inventor of the software system that features a fault-tolerant server architecture.

“We convert communications from whatever device is out there into our format,” Campbell said. “Going across our carrier system, we can take it anywhere we want and then reconvert it into the format of whatever it is you're talking to.

“So, we're able to bridge together not only to solve the radio problem of different frequencies and radio types talking to each other, but we can also expand their reach out to all the other devices that are out there so that you can have a two-way radio talking to a cell phone, a computer, a landline, a BlackBerry, a Nextel phone, a pager or any combination thereof.”

In other words, Codespear talk groups are not limited to LMR radios. They can include the mayor on a cellular phone or a federal official on a landline phone thousands of miles away, Campbell said.

And the communication can bridge different platforms. For example, a text message typed into a computer or PDA can be delivered to a voice-only phone or LMR radio via a computer-generated voice application — in 12 different languages. Currently, the voice-to-text functionality is limited to basic commands, but Codespear is working to make it more robust, Campbell said.

Obviously, any interoperable communications solution has to include a radio interface device. Codespear's current model is about the size of a shoebox, and the company is about to go to market with a smaller version that can be attached to a laptop computer (see photo). One again, the key is the fact that most of the protocol-conversion work is done by the software, Campbell said.

“Instead of putting the logic into a big piece of hardware, we're able to use the computers to do all the software,” he said. “Really, all the box is having to do is convert those audio signals into something that the computer can understand to take care of the physical interface with the radio. Beyond that, we don't put logic at all inside those boxes. “

With most of the processing being done by a computer, the Codespear radio interfaces are relatively inexpensive. Sold in a bundle with the software, the radio interfaces are cheap enough that entire fleets of vehicles can be equipped with the solution, which can be deployed at a site simply by plugging in a radio from a different system.

This price point and ease of deployment greatly reduces the overall cost of the system, Hammond said.

“It's a smart ACU-1000,” he said. “We had a $36 million interoperability plan to make all the radios in Wayne County talk to each during a disaster. We have now lowered that price to $3 million. Now, we can go out and buy half as many radios, reprogram a bunch of them and use the SmartMsg piece to interlink all of those systems.”

In addition, the fact that the Codespear system is software-driven means that it can be upgraded with new features — supporting new devices or the latest security protocol — via automatic downloads instead of expensive and painstaking hardware forklifts many competitors advocate, Campbell said.

“Their solutions to get onto an IP network is for everyone to buy new radios and spend millions of dollars,” Campbell said. “What we're saying is, keep the radios you have — they already work and actually work better in emergency situations where you're losing towers — and we're going to take your radios and allow them to talk with IP networks and other radio networks.”

SOFTWARE DISTRUST

For some in the public-safety community, the notion of depending on software creates a feeling of uneasiness. After all, the notion of rebooting a system or fending off a hacker attack at a time when communications are critical is unacceptable.

“We take the position that you don't want to go through an infrastructure that could fail,” said Harlin McEwen, chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police's communications and technology committee. “But the reality is, almost every system today has an element of software in it.”

Indeed, public-safety entities are becoming more aware of the differences between dedicated IP-based architectures and commercial Internet applications that often are unreliable in times of crisis, Campbell said. The trend toward software-based communications is becoming more prevalent as more communications coordinators are charged with integrating their entities' radio systems with their IT networks, he said.

Larry Simmons, Wayne County's chief information officer and director of strategic planning, agreed.

“I think what we will see is almost a complete convergence [of communications for governmental entities],” he said, noting the importance of software-based solutions.

It's a trend that should be welcomed by cash-strapped public-safety entities that don't want to risk buyer's remorse after spending millions on a new radio system, said Carl Berry, a retired police chief who now is chief of security for the North American International Auto Show, which uses Codespear's solution.

“You figure the average shelf life of a computer is 18 months, and radios are becoming the same way,” Berry said. “Why continually spend money to upgrade [hardware] time after time when upgrading software can be done so much more easily and less expensively?”

ACCIDENTAL OPPORTUNITY

With the ability to support multiple communications interfaces in place for alerting purposes, Campbell said Codespear's expansion into the interoperability space was “logical.” However, he admits that this evolution was not the result of a long-term vision. Instead, the genesis was the fortunate result of an unrelated presentation two years ago.

Campbell was demonstrating Codespear's alert-messaging system to a group of firefighters who thought Codespear had a radio-interoperability solution — something it did not have at the time.

“As I was giving this presentation to all these firefighters, they stopped me and asked, ‘What does this have to do with radios?’” I said, ‘It doesn't,’” Campbell said. “So I had them explain their problem to me, and, as they're explaining it, I started thinking, ‘You know, that wouldn't be that hard for us to do with the backbone and everything we already had in place.’ So, I started on it.

“That's how I discovered the need out there. I was just like everyone else; I just assumed everyone had [interoperable] communications. I saw that our software easily could adapt to solve that problem, so I did it.”

One person who is glad Campbell did is Berry. He applauds the voice quality within the Codespear system and is especially appreciative of the French translation feature that lets him communicate better with Canadian security officials.

“What we've been able to do is hook up private and public communications. It's extremely economical,” Berry said. “Whether you're a big agency or a small agency, this can work for you.”

CITIZENS: A NEW PIECE OF THE INTEROPERABILITY PUZZLE

Of course, Codespear's background is in the alert-messaging field, and Wayne County last month agreed to purchase the latest iteration of the SmartMsg system, which will be used to notify residents of emergency situations.

With SmartMsg, any communications device logged into the system can be notified immediately of an alert situation. While most Codespear systems require users to actively opt in, the Wayne County system automatically will contact citizens' landline phones with appropriate emergency alerts, Hammond said.

Long a fan of Codespear's public-safety interoperability solution, Hammond said the public-notification application that can send 10,000 messages per minute is “revolutionary” in an arena where communications with the public has long dependent on citizens tuned into radio or TV at the time information is disseminated.

“This gives us a tool to have official information to every person in Wayne County at least by their home phone without them ever subscribing to it” Hammond said. “They can go in and augment their subscription — although it doesn't cost them a dime — to their cell phone, PDA or whatever.

“And it's not just one-way communication. People can send an acknowledgement that they received the message. … It's not just a static broadcast that we hope and pray John Q. Public gets; it's a broadcast I know they are going to be get because they can respond back and acknowledge through whatever device — whether it's a cell phone, a house phone or a PC, ‘Yes, I received this evacuation order.’”

And the alerts are not simply broadcast indiscriminately. Using a mapping tool (see photo), an emergency coordinator can draw a circle around the area that needs to be notified, so valuable resources are not wasted unnecessarily.

Evacuation alerts may not happen very often, but the alert system also can be used for other more commonplace situations, such as Amber alerts and notifying citizens of construction or accident areas to enhance traffic flow, Simmons said. It also can be used to dispel troublesome speculation that can cause unnecessary public concern — a circumstance that occurred during a recent fire, he said.

“There was a rumor that it was caused by a terrorist attack,” Simmons said. “The first responders knew fairly quickly that it was not a terrorist attack, but there was no way to tell anyone. … Now, we'll be able to dispel those kinds of rumors.”

Hammond said his office has been using Codespear's public-safety system to send alert messages to first responders for years. The solution not only provides real-time information to public-safety personnel quickly, it does so in a manner that conserves radio voice capacity.

“We can send out a message that says, ‘Event Channel 16 is for fire; Event Channel 17 is for police; Event Channel 18 is for EMS,’” Hammond said. “Normally, that would take 42 phone calls because there are 42 dispatch centers in Wayne County. Now, we've eliminated that problem with the click of a button. We're looking at automatic mutual aid.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Just as Codespear has bridged the gap between text and voice, Campbell said the system similarly is ready to handle video communications. Some customers already use alert buttons in parking lots and in public areas such as courthouses to activate or prioritize video surveillance when an incident is occurring.

“The way it's architected, it's really easy for us to add in new devices without having to redevelop the product,” Campbell said. “As new devices and new interfaces come out, we can just pop them in there … usually very quickly.”

Hammond is anxious to see what innovations Codespear will develop next.

“The more we're rolling it out, every day it's getting applied differently,” Hammond said. “We're taking this tool that we thought was just going to be a simple notification tool, and these guys are doing stuff with it that I never thought they could do with it.”

Simmons agreed that the combination of Codespear's public-safety interoperability and public-notification system is a power solution.

“I honestly believe these two systems will keep Wayne County on the cutting edge for years to come and serve as a model for others,” Simmons said.