Cisco Systems today unveiled at CTIA Wireless 2007 in Orlando the next generation of its Interoperability Collaboration System, or IPICS, which offers improved management and security tools, as well as the ability to link an expanded roster of disparate devices.

The key to version 2.0 of IPICS—first introduced in October 2005—is the policy engine, which lets dispatchers switch from normal operation to event-oriented operation at the touch of a button, based on custom, preset parameters loaded into the system. For example, should a major incident—such as a warehouse fire—occur, the dispatcher could activate a preset talk group that includes incident commanders at all fire departments in the area, said Shmuel Shaffer, general manager of Cisco’s safety and security systems business unit.

The initial version of IPICS used an IP architecture to provide interoperable communications between push-to-talk devices, regardless of frequency. Version 2.0 goes a step further by expanding its reach to cellular phones, pagers and e-mail applications.

The solution is being field-tested by the Boulder (Colo.) Sheriff’s Department. The county—741 square miles with 294,000 residents—presents significant communications challenges given its widely varying terrain that features “lots of hills, lots of valleys,” Shaffer said. Interference blocks radio signals in some places but not in others. The same is true regarding cellular signals. The multimode capability of IPICS 2.0 means the best signal on either system can be utilized, according to Shaffer.

“We’re providing the flexibility so that the best modality can be used,” given the location, he said. “With IPICS 2.0, you can mix and match.”

To further illustrate the significance of this additional capability, suppose the blazing warehouse stores containers filled with toxic chemicals and a firefighter suffers serious chemical burns while fighting the blaze. If one of the preset talk groups includes a physician who specializes in chemical burns and whose expertise is needed to effectively triage the firefighter at the scene, the physician may be reachable only by cellular phone. That’s not a problem with IPICS 2.0, according to Shaffer.

“Sometimes you have to bring in an expert into a situation as it evolves,” he said. “And the expert doesn’t need to be in the vicinity of the event. The physician can be in the Bahamas—it doesn’t matter. This solution also removes the constraint of distance.”

Further removing the distance barriers is the solution’s Operational Views application, which lets dispatchers and network managers monitor communications activity across multiple jurisdictions. Depending on the circumstances, commanders from neighboring agencies could enter the conversation to provide needed expertise or instruct the dispatcher to establish a communications link between personnel the agency has sent to assist at an event and the incident commander at the scene. All of this can be done at the press of a button—a capability that Shaffer described as “selective interoperability.”

Drew Depler, customer service manager in the county’s information technology department, which provides support to the sheriff’s department, called the ability to monitor multiple devices “fantastic.” The county is using the IPICS 2.0 platform to monitor a couple of dozen sensors placed along Boulder Creek, which runs through the city, to measure flow rates and water levels.

“When we see high water, we can alert the public through e-mail and text messages,” Depler said. “IPICS provides the gateway for those alerts.” The policy engine would trigger a series of actions that could include e-mails to residents telling them of evacuation plans, text messages to city departments—such as public works, telling them to start the sandbagging process—and calls to IP phones carried by the mayor and other city officials.

Security has been enhanced with the addition of password hardening—requiring users to create case-sensitive passwords containing both numbers and letters—and a password history feature that prompts users to change passwords periodically based on parameters set by the system manager. In addition, IPICS 2.0 leverages Cisco’s Security Agent application, a policy-based system that identifies and isolates abnormal traffic—both known and unknown threats—before it can penetrate and damage the network. Because of the application’s self-protecting nature, any unknown threats immediately are added to the list of known threats, as a precaution.

Shaffer conceded there are other IP-based interoperability solutions on the market. But one major difference between them and IPICS 2.0 is that the latter is based on an open architecture, he said.

“We don’t believe in proprietary systems, because we believe our clients are better served by open standards,” Shaffer said

Another differentiator is that the IPICS solution is the only one engineered by Cisco, a pioneer and giant in IP technology development.

“What company has Cisco’s experience in voice over IP? Cisco has more than 5 million IP phones in the field,” he said. “No other company matches Cisco’s experience in IP networks and routing.”