The mantra in the public-safety world is that IP is the future, but some jurisdictions have taken the plunge today, proving that the technology works effectively in a mission-critical network — that is, if public-safety agencies are willing to change the policies, procedures and employee mindsets they've had in place for the last 30-plus years.

Dean Hairston, services division commander with the City of Danville, Va., understands the dramatic shift IP brings. The city embarked on a project with Cisco in early 2006 to deploy a voice-over-IP (VoIP) network that would connect the disparate systems surrounding the city. Danville covers about 44 square miles at the southernmost part of central Virginia, bordering the state of North Carolina. It's also surrounded on three sides by Pittsylvania County, Va., which incorporates about 100 square miles. Across the border lies Caswell County, N.C.

Criminal and traffic offenders often cross back and forth over the state line in an attempt to elude capture, resulting in many high-speed chases. The lack of interoperability among the various jurisdictions made these pursuits more problematic, as pursuing units were relegated to using a system of relayed messages transmitted via their respective agency's emergency dispatch center. The inability of first responders in the field to communicate directly with each other added a layer of complexity and delay in these pursuits.

Hairston and his team began looking at possible solutions, including increasing the city's radio footprint by obtaining authorization to put repeaters in other jurisdictions, but that would only let City of Danville agencies connect to each other.

“We needed to connect with agencies whose jurisdictions we were going into,” Hairston said. “The other options were proprietary and required large purchases of equipment … but with the budgets of surrounding jurisdictions, that wasn't possible. The IT budget for one of the jurisdictions was only $1500 for the whole year.”

At an industry conference, Hairston and his team heard a presentation from Cisco Systems about a VoIP system that facilitated interoperability among disparate radios. Cisco had already deployed such a system in Honolulu and at Miami International Airport, but it was looking for a bigger customer to prove out the concept.

“When we approached them [Cisco] they were very excited. The City of Danville had put in some fiber, and the more we talked about it, the better fit it seemed to be,” Hairston said. “It was very affordable because Cisco was going to foot the bill for it, but looking at bringing other agencies on to expand from the initial pilot was still cheaper than a total system replacement.”

Next came the heavy lifting: getting the necessary people on board with the idea. Hairston said the biggest barrier to the project came when the city looked to identify the entities that needed to come to the table. For instance, representatives from the city's public-works department needed to be a part of the discussions because it controlled the extended network that includes routers and fiber.

Within the public-safety organization itself, many misconceptions surrounded VoIP — especially what it means for individuals' jobs, Hairston said. “A lot of the radio folks thought that converting to IP meant they'd be out of a job,” he said. “And the IT people weren't familiar with the concept of VoIP. We had to educate them on how the system worked and what would be required.”

Others believe IP systems aren't secure enough. To thwart that concern, the City of Danville is using dedicated fiber and T1 lines to connect the network among jurisdictions, Hairston said. Meanwhile, Morgan Wright, global industry solution manager for public safety and homeland security with Cisco, likes to counter the notion by pointing out that the White House uses IP devices. He also reminds that the Department of Defense has certified Cisco IP systems for command-and-control communications.

Nevertheless, education is a theme echoed by the majority of VoIP vendors and other jurisdictions that have taken the plunge.

“There is a lot of turf-protecting,” Wright said. “Most jurisdictions in the past built systems to be silos and stand-alone systems. Naturally, there will be resistance to change because [IP] is so different than what they have done the last 50 years.”

The way the Cisco system works, however, is relatively simple. A radio signal is converted to an IP packet and sent to an IP server; from there it is sent to any device that has the ability to capture (or send) IP packets and convert them back to voice, whether that's a laptop, a push-to-talk device or a phone.

However, the ability to embrace IP in a public-safety setting does require a new perspective, said Tim Daly, manager of data dispatch and security products with M/A-COM, which offers the IP-based Open Sky system.

“In the radio world, there was an expectation that you buy a radio system that wouldn't change for 15 to 20 years,” Daly said. “In the IP environment, it's more of a refreshment of technology, updated releases. From an administrator's standpoint, that is the part of the change they need to be prepared for.”

To enhance the educational process, Hairston and company created materials that extol the benefits of VoIP and identified areas where the technology already operates in a public-safety environment.

Two years ago, Cumberland County, Pa., deployed an Open Sky 800 MHz radio system for the county's police departments; recently, the county's fire and EMS agencies moved to the system. The network covers 33 municipalities in the county, giving numerous state, county and local agencies the ability to communicate with each other.

According to County Commissioner Bruce Barclay, the biggest piece of advice for those considering a move to VoIP is to control the rumor mill that comes along with deploying a technology that is unknown to many. The county went so far as to set up a Web site to help in that effort. Anything potential users want to know about the radio system can be submitted and the answers will be posted on the site.

“Any time you make change, people are resistant to that, and then there are all kinds of rumors that start. It's important to get the facts out and communicate with end-users,” Barclay said, adding that the county also set up extensive courses at the local community college to train the trainers from various departments.

Despite all of this preparation, the system has come under fire of late with claims that it isn't covering the entire borough of Shippensburg, one of the county's 33 municipalities, claims that Barclay refutes. (See MRT, August 2007, page 10.)

“It does work and work well,” he said. “With any radio system you aren't going to have 100% coverage. It's just the laws of physics. The system is good. … We are tweaking and working the bugs out of the system.”

Other critical elements of deploying a VoIP system include determining who will control the resources and defining the rules of engagement that will govern how the various agencies access the system. For the City of Danville, that meant letting each jurisdiction select its operating frequency. Most began by using their secondary frequencies, but they quickly moved the VoIP system to their primary frequencies once they understood the capabilities of the system, Hairston said.

However, the City of Danville controls the connection piece, so if an agency is chasing a suspect out of Virginia and into North Carolina, the city will connect the necessary agencies. All of the jurisdictions also agreed to eliminate 10 codes, because one code might have a different meaning for one jurisdiction to another.

“Our MOU is simple: ‘I agree to participate,’” Hairston said.

IP TIPS FOR PUBLIC-SAFETY AGENCIES

Bring the right people to the planning table. For example, public works employees may need to be part of the process because they control routers and fiber.

Educate end-users about the capabilities of the network, and dispel rumors about what IP is and how it works.

Explain how employees' jobs will change. It doesn't mean those who maintain the radio system are out of a job.

Extensively train end-users on how to use the system.