Growing awareness of public-safety needs has created greater opportunities for communications leaders to upgrade the technology of their systems, but the decisions are becoming increasingly complex, according to panelists participating in the Public Safety and First Responders Roundtable session at IWCE 2004 on Friday.

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 tragedies, an unprecedented amount of funding is earmarked for public safety, with a particular focus on interoperability. It’s important that public-safety entities take advantage of the opportunity while it exists, according to Prashant Doshi, Primedia Workplace Learning’s west region manager. “The floodgates are open to Homeland Security [funding], but I don’t think they will stay that way forever,” Doshi said.

But much of the funding reported in the media will not go towards public-safety communications, according to Harlin McEwen, communications and technology committee chairman for the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). As a result, economic limitations still play an issue in communications decisions—especially in the many rural communities that rely on volunteer departments, said Paul Maplethorpe, fire chief for the Greater Round Lake Fire Protection District in Illinois.

“How do you talk to them about spending $100,000 [for communications upgrades], when their annual budget is $10,000 and they have to hold pancake breakfasts and sell raffle tickets to buy an engine?” Maplethorpe said.

One way public-safety entities can reduce costs is to move to an IP-based platform, which also allows for greater interoperability, according to Amalesh Sanku, EFJohnson’s vice president of marketing. “If we don’t operate in standards, the costs go up,” Sanku said. “Using IP reduces the cost of ownership, because we’re talking about off-the-shelf equipment.”

McEwen said he believes IP solutions are the future, but he’s not sold on the notion that voice-over-IP offerings provide the “mission-critical” reliability needed by public safety. And, while technological advances have increased communications flexibility, interoperability can be a double-edged sword if not properly managed—a reality often lost on those not in public safety, he said.

“If everybody was on one channel and they could all talk, it would be bedlam,” McEwen said.

Indeed, establishing practices for interoperability was critical for public-safety entities working together during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, according to Steve Proctor, executive director of the Utah Communications Agency Network. Unless these practices are reinforced repeatedly, the benefits of technological upgrades can be lost, he said.

“If you don’t train and retrain—and retrain—you just spent millions of dollars for nothing,” Proctor said. “To me, you ought to receive as much training on how to use your radio as you get on how to use your weapon.”

But training can be problematic. Maplethorpe noted that it is difficult to ask members of volunteer departments to give even more of their time to undergo extensive training for interoperability situations. And McEwen said even training full-time officers—particularly in police departments, which have less “down time” than fire departments—can be challenging.

“You have to realize the union mentality we’re dealing with,” McEwen said. “They want to be trained when they are on duty, or they want to be paid overtime—that’s money.”

Donny Jackson, Mobile Radio Technology magazine