The Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate launched a 30-day pilot in New Orleans in partnership with law-enforcement and emergency-management agencies. The pilot tested the latest multiband radio technology, which lets disparate agencies communicate across jurisdictions regardless of radio band. Specifically, Harris’s Unity XG-100P multiband radio’s interoperability was tested by state, local and regional fire and police departments during the city’s Jazz and Heritage Festival, which ended May 8. The pilot has been extended so that Louisiana agencies can test this system further in preparation for hurricane season, said Thomas Chirhart, program manager of the multiband radio program.

Chirhart joined Associate Editor Mary Rose Roberts to discuss the pilot, including its future and lessons learned thus far.

How does this test differ from the April test held at the Phoenix International Raceway’s NASCAR events?
We wanted to test, based upon the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, primarily, the need for an alkaline or disposal battery pack. I have a picture of a New Orleans police car underwater and the only thing showing is the emergency lights. And when you have a complete system failure with your power-grid and assets are underwater, submerged with patrol cars and fire apparatus, there’s no chance to seek a solution to recharge batteries. So we’ve identified that an alkaline or disposable radio battery pack was essential.

The New Orleans’ pilot consisted of the jazz festival. Where the previous pilot in Phoenix we encountered the high-noise environment of a raceway, we now have a large, music celebration over several days, where there are multiple band playing. … So it’s an essential test for the noise-canceling features within the [multiband] radio.

How did the multiband radio perform?
From the first responders I spoke with, they said it was essential, it worked great, according to their needs and mission requirements. They were very pleased with the outcome.

Which first-responder agencies participated in the pilot?
Interesting thing about the jazz festival with the communications planning is that you have all of the New Orleans agencies: the police, the fire department and EMS. Local parishes are involved. Louisiana state police and Special Forces also were there, and the Coast Guard played a role with communications interoperability.

It also included taxicab operations, which appears to be an extra resources — a set of eyes and ears — that can report situations.

Can you tell us more about how commercial operators — like taxicab companies — can interoperate with public- safety in emergencies?
It’s situational awareness. In an emergency, the taxis are authorized to communicate with police, fire or EMS on one of the channels. It’s thinking outside the box. Think about the cabs on the streets at any one given time in a situation where they observed something and could communicate with the police or fire department. I think it was a unique asset to incorporate, especially when you have a large event — more than 200,000 people converging on one or two locations, such as the French Quarter.

Why was battery power tested?
Not everyone is close to a charging station. A lot of people are on foot or perimeter patrol who are not actually in vehicles. So if you have a situation where your battery goes dead, you have the capability of replacing it until you have an opportunity to charge your battery at a mobile command post.

Was it relatively easy for disparate agencies to converge on the scene and communicate using the multiband?
The basic thing is a good operations plan and training. The big thing, too, is that when you do your programming of the radio it has to be similar to what they are exposed to in their daily operation, for example the channel configuration or the naming nomenclature of the channels have to be similar. In talking with [first responders], they found it relatively easy to learn how to use the radio. They liked that they could intermix different bands in a single zone within the radio, so you can have a VHF on Channel 1 a UHF or 700 MHz on Channel 2, etc.

What were the lessons learned from this pilot?
All I’ve heard for the most part was, what took you so long? That was the primary thing. Yes. We did have some concerns in the mechanical arena. One of the concerns we found from the responders was antenna length. Understand that this is a first-generation multiple band radio, multiple manufactures are making the radio, and it’s a case that perhaps the engineers need to go back to the drawing board and see if they can make the antenna a little bit shorter. What we encountered was an officer sitting in a patrol car may encounter a conflict with an antenna that is too long and they would like to see something smaller.

The pilot has been extended. Can you provide more detail?
We are now entering into hurricane season and by extending it a short period of time, we give the opportunity to other agencies that have an interest and what to try it. It will be given to local parishes in the region to see how it functions.