In pursuit of interoperability >By D.A. Keckler
Data gathered by the Justice Department provide a snapshot of where law enforcement agencies are now with communications interoperability-and where they think they’re going.
Interoperability standards, the protocols that permit a common interface between different communication systems, are a high-profile issue in public safety communications. The capability for law enforcement officers to coordinate their activities with other agencies (and to maintain constant communication while passing through other radio systems in situations like high-speed pursuit) is critical.
In 1996, the Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee (PSWAC) advised the FCC and NTIA that “Unless immediate measures are taken to alleviate spectrum shortfalls and promote interoperability, public safety agencies will not be able to adequately discharge their obligation to protect life and property in a safe, efficient, and cost-effective manner.” The FCC did approve an allocation of 24MHz in January, but spectrum is only part of the equation. The efficiency of radio systems depends on both radio frequency availability and compatibility.
As Tom Tolman, manager of communications technology for the National Law Enforcement and Technology Center-Rocky Mountain Region (NLECTC-RM), Denver, told MRT, “There is a nationwide, growing problem of interoperability, and it’s not a static thing, it’s a dynamic, growing problem.
“What we’re facing is that the margin of safety for the community, as well as for the law enforcement officials, is diminishing. It’s only a matter of time … where a loss of life will be directly attributed to interoperability,” Tolman said.
Tolman is co-author (with Mary Taylor, senior research analyst, Denver Research Institute, University of Denver and Robert C. Epper, deputy director, Technology Programs, NLECTC-RM) of a study released earlier this year on wireless communications and interoperability among state and local law enforcement agencies. The study presents the results of a 1997 nationwide survey of agencies on their current and planned use of communications equipment and services and of their experience with interoperability. The study, conducted by NLECTC-RM, was supported by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.
“We don’t want this to be another bureaucratic, go-nowhere, do-nothing, ‘oh, that’s nice,’ sit-on-the-shelf report,” Tolman said. “We want this to be a living, breathing, active tool that can be utilized.”
NIJ’s projects emphasize state and local agencies, which cannot fund their own research, Tolman said. “We’re an intercessor or advocate for state and local agencies.”
Questionnaires were mailed to all U.S. agencies with more than 100 sworn officers and to a stratified random sample of smaller agencies across the country. More than 1,300 agencies responded, which, with telephone followup, produced a response rate of nearly 50%-a particularly large response.
Key findings of the study were: * Interoperability is common, with 82% of agencies having at least one channel dedicated solely for use with other organizations. (See Figure 1 at the left.) Although most agencies are confident of their ability to handle routine situations, many experience serious obstacles, particularly when trying to communicate with agencies beyond their local network or operating in different frequency bands.
* Limitations in funding and frequency incompatibility were identified as the biggest interoperability problems. * Thirty-five percent think state or federal mandates are needed to ensure interoperability, but the majority believe local planning best meets their needs. Many agencies indicated that fundingassistance would make mandates more acceptable. * Discrepancies in state and local perceptions about the existence of formal state interoperability plans suggest a need for more dialogue between state and local law enforcement agencies. * Most agencies have conventional analog systems and operate in high VHF bands, but information from agencies planning to replace or upgrade their systems within 10 years (46% percent of the total) indicated that the number of agencies operating at 800MHz will about double, as will those using digital systems. The use of trunked systems is also expected to increase. * Most radio spectrum is used for voice transmissions, but the number of agencies devoting channels to data-only transmissions is increasing. Plans for use of new technologies and mobile or portable computers will increase the need for additional spectrum. The use of laptops (projected to double in the next 10 years) is currently replacing mobile data terminals in larger agencies. * Dead spots and outdated equipment are the most common problems with radio systems. (See Figure 2 on page 44.) More than half of the agencies that complained of outdated equipment (older than 10 years) had plans to replace or upgrade their radio systems. * Channel congestion, a serious problem for almost half the agencies, is much less of a problem for agencies with trunked systems. Large and state agencies indicated the greatest need and requested the greatest number of additional channels. * The use of voice and data security measures is increasing in all agencies. Large and state agencies currently are the most likely to use security measures. Wireless data
Tolman pointed out that the report demonstrates “a growing demand for spectrum in other areas, such as data.” Text, imaging, video, database use and fingerprint transmission are all expected to increase over the next two years, as shown in Figure 3 above.
More than 90% of respondents have channels dedicated to voice-only transmissions, 27% have some channels dedicated to data-only and 19% use alternate voice and data channels. The need for additional data-only channels shows the greatest rate of increase, even though the greatest overall need is for more voice-only channels, the report found. The number of law enforcement agencies that will be using electronic text for reports and queries, and database information, on MDTs and laptops will double in the next two years.
Familiarity with standards
Larger agencies were found to be more familiar than smaller ones with interoperability initiatives such as the FCC frequency application process, Project 25 interoperability standards (as shown in Figure 4 on page 48) and National Public Safety Planning Advisory Committee (NPSPAC) guidelines.
About 70% of respondents said interoperability issues and standards were important to the purchase of their next land mobile radio system. About a third of respondents indicated they were very likely to adopt Project 25 interoperability standards for their next land mobile radio system, another third were somewhat likely, and 19% were very unlikely. The likelihood of adopting Project 25 standards was not dependent on agency familiarity with the standards, the report found.
Tolman agreed that there are many reasons for smaller agencies being “out of the loop” regarding standards. Inexperience among communications managers, time demands in a small department and small budgets are all factors, he said. About 75% of the roughly 19,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies have fewer than 25 sworn officers, so familiarity with communications standards may be wanting.
Funding for interoperability
The sense of competition for funding is acute among agencies. All agencies surveyed rated “limitations in funding” and “different bands” as the two biggest obstacles to interoperability, as shown in Figure 5 on page 49. Overall, 69% percent of respondents rated limitations in funding as a severe problem. Agencies that rated funding limits as a serious problem also rated both their radio system’s ability and their agency’s ability to handle different types of interoperability situations significantly lower than did agencies satisfied with their funding. “This is one of the primary drivers toward regionalization,” Tolman said. “Jurisdictions are realizing it’s in their best interest to combine communications centers and simply pool their resources.” (See “Blue Ridge …” News, page 65.) The real choice may be whether to get three new patrol cars, hire two new employees or upgrade the radios, he said.
“This interoperability study has accomplished a lot of the things that we wanted to, it’s gained a lot of favorable publicity, and it’s being utilized around the country by smaller agencies,” Tolman said.
In June, at the urging of Associate Attorney General Raymond C. Fisher, work began on a “short, high-end” videotape presentation of the study targeted for audiences such as the National League of Cities, the National Governors Association and state legislators.
The success of the law enforcement survey has also prompted urging from the FCC to identify the communications needs of fire and EMS agencies. NLECTC is currently working with the Public Safety Wireless Network to develop that study, which should be completed this fall, Tolman said. The study will be logistically more difficult because of the larger number of fire and EMS agencies, compared to law enforcement, and the volunteer nature of many local departments, which makes it difficult to reach them.
Although many studies look for the “big discovery,” Tolman said the NLECTC report really provides validation for what many believed to be true about law enforcement communications, but could not quantify.
“This study is a collective voice,” Tolman said. “The agencies spoke.”