Scrutinizing public-safety trunking efficiency
Upgrading a trunked system to include system management tools allows communications managers to use improve their allocations of resources.
Managers of today’s trunked radio communications systems have at their disposal a greater variety of techniques than ever to help them effectively manage and operate their systems. Data management and analysis, activity reports and other methods of tracking and analyzing system use give managers powerful tools to determine the best usage of their resources. These methods free up busy system administrators to focus on other parts of their jobs.
Until recently, however, it wasn’t easy (or even possible, in some cases) to determine how efficiently a trunked radio system was being used. A system manager, administrator or dispatcher might have data on the number of push-to-talks (PTTs) over a given channel. But he would need a calculator to prepare a report on usage trends, and any meaningful report would take a great deal of time to generate. And if he wanted to represent any of the data graphically, he’d have to plot the graphs himself.
Advances in system management technology and software now allow public safety agencies, utilities and other radio communications users to upgrade their systems with tools that improve efficiency, maximize available features and generate all the data they need-in the formats they can use. These methods help them plan and manage their communications systems as efficiently as possible.
Start with what you do know Where do you start the planning process for improving system management with enhanced data collection and retrieval? A user must first consider the deficiencies that currently exist in system monitoring, reporting and data. For instance, how difficult is it to take the data on the number of PTTs over a given period and extrapolate some meaningful information? A system administrator needs to know bits of data such as the number of transmissions, the duration of each transmission, the types of groups or usersfor each transmission and a host of other information.
Data can come from sites, devices, units, groups and channels. Among their many uses, such data allow system administrators to predict when a channel will reach capacity. But even if all the data are there, users that have not upgraded their system management capabilities will have a difficult time making sense of it all-and generating the data takes time. The more time an administrator spends on generating reports, the less time he has for other, more valuable activities.
Massaging the numbers To generate a readable, meaningful report, the user must take the site controller data logged for each push-to-talk and export it to a PC. The process begins to bog down at this point because of the lack of off-the-shelf software for radio communications applications. Typically, the user calls in a software expert, either an in-house person or a consultant, to write new code that enables the data to be massaged and interpreted. In many cases a spreadsheet program can be used to keep track of some of the data, but there are severe limitations on data interpretation when a generic spreadsheet program is used.
Data extrapolation isn’t the only activity hampered by limitations in system management tools. Often a system administrator or dispatcher needs to make a change “on the fly.” One example would be if a police department needed to add individual users to a specific talk group for an emergency such as a hurricane or a forest fire. The latest technology in system management allows such changes, known as dynamic regroup, to be made in seconds with the click of a mouse. Other systems have a much longer and more complex process (typically involving bringing the radio back to the shop for alterations) for changing users within groups. Another example of limitations occurs with system monitoring. If a breakdown occurs, only a system with real-time monitoring and alarms would notify the dispatcher or administrator right away.
Upgrade considerations After determining where efficiencies with system management exist, the user must consider the benefits of upgrading to include new technology and software. If these benefits are carefully weighed, the overall improvement in resource allocation that results from having better data, combined with the reduced user training and system maintenance costs, should more than offset the additional outlay of funds necessary to make the upgrade.
Many users initially make the move from conventional radio to trunked radio by installing a system that’s designed to be upgraded, rather than purchasing the most complete system available. When the need arises for additional capabilities, users can simply enhance their systems without starting over from scratch. This is an opportune time to consider adding equipment and software to enable improved system management and reporting.
System design One enhanced database and reporting system consists of a communications director operating in a client/server environment. A typical platform begins with a server PC with a single client, as well as fully loaded hardware and software. Ericsson Private Radio Systems’ system management product, the Communications System Director, includes standard hardware platforms such as: a 450MHz Pentium II processor and a 17-inch color monitor. If additional sites or users need to be added, they can be implemented with the use of a PC for each user. The entire local-area network (LAN) then consists of the server linked to PCs, auxiliary systems, remote sites, management controllers and peripherals. Efficiency is enhanced when industry-standard hardware and software, such as the Windows NT operating system, are used, thereby eliminating the need for proprietary technology.
The ability to create templates-a standard set of features for, say, Group A, and a different set of features for Group B-gives system administrators an additional time-saving feature. The ability to save time and gain an extra measure of control over the system is a capability many system administrators want. Examples of additional time-saving features include a wizard, which assists in setting up a report or template, and mass edit, which allows changes to the entire database through a single action or keystroke.
Through a user-friendly graphical user interface (GUI), the system manager or administrator can set up the system the way it needs to be used. The interface also allows for simple and efficient monitoring of the system in real time, effective database management and easy control of any of the subsystems that make up the trunked radio system.
Using management functions Operationally, enhanced management capabilities can perform a number of functions for a trunked system including: system and device management, unit group database management, group database management, call activity monitor, report management, activity database management and radio control. GUIs allow all these functions to be accessed through pull-down menus, check boxes and control trees.
Database management, one of the key features of an enhanced system, allows the system administrator to control and manage information critical to system performance. For example, Ericsson’s CSD contains three database management processes: unit definition, which assigns each radio an ID number; group definition, which allows individual units to be assigned to groups such as police, fire or emergency medical; and system and device definition, which includes site channel configurations and operating parameters.
Trunked radio system administrators can make use of report management functions to generate significant amounts of data in easy-to-read formats. Detailed information on system activity, performance and efficiency are available through report management. The user can customize the reports or generate reports through default conditions. Report management also allows the user to view, print and store reports as needed. The reports can be printed using a mix of text and graphics.
Radio system management is greatly simplified through the use of these types of tools that are commonplace in other industries but relatively new to private radio. With increasing sophistication of trunked radio and a greater need to manage the system efficiently, the prevalence of easy-to-use system management hardware and software will only grow.
Smith is product manager for systems management, network management, data gateway and PBX gateway products products at Ericsson Private Radio Systems, Lynchburg, VA.