Pogo lives in public safety
We have met the enemy-and he is us.
First, my thanks to the MRT staff for their hospitality during the recent IWCE. Even though I’ve attended APCO conferences for years, this was my first IWCE, and it was great!
I’m really encouraged by the combination of technical savvy and business acumen demonstrated by so many of the attendees. I was also glad to learn from Robert Schwaninger’s opening remarks that attorneys and radio guys will be the ultimate post-nuclear survivors.
On a more serious note, and on careful reflection (the mental kind, not the mirror kind), my concerns regarding public safety communications were reinforced by observations made at the show. Instead of stimulating and leading technological development and revolution in communications, public safety is, at best, only “along for the ride.” At worst, we are lagging in development. At the “very worst,” we’re lagging so far back that we could be stationary.
What’s the deal? How could this happen? How could something as essential, vital, critical and important as public safety communications be so deftly and effectively ignored? (Fortunately, in this column we not only raise the questions, but try to offer the answers to the readers as well.) Simply put, the issue is not indifference-it’s money. And circumstances. And people.
It appears to be one of those simple math problems, the answer to which is “the null set” (Mr. Smith’s algebraic functions class in eighth grade). As a leading-edge consumer of communications technology, the government is lagging in response and will continue to lag. And so high-tech development is held back by virtue of government’s organization, function and purpose. (This is shaping up as being a really depressing topic, isn’t it? But as my friend Steve “Grumpy” Davidson says, “Everyone is entitled to my opinion.”)
By its nature, the heart of government organization works to be accountable and reactively responsible, typically providing services and organizational functions not specifically suited to the competitive private sector. We are not chartered, or charged, to be profitable, inventive or adaptive. (Many units of government, especially within smaller entities, are an exception to this generalization, but their success is often the reaction to fiscal constraints.)
What does all this mean for the communications realm? Here’s the money part: For most governmental agencies to embark on a technology replacement or enhancement program whose cost exceeds some threshold value ($50K-$100K), that agency must program the expenditure into a planned capital improvement program (CIP). The CIP is scheduled and reviewed by (and typically requires the approval of) the governing body (city council, county government, state legislature, etc.). Even though technology projects are frequently being pushed toward the top of the list, each department or agency must still compete for capital funds with all other high-dollar (read: photo-opportunity and voter-pleasing) projects.
Because CIP dollars are subject to a variety of forces external to the agency (read: vagaries of financial markets), the effect is predictable. Major capital expenses must be programmed years in advance and may be protracted even after budgeted. We plan for and program project money based on known costs today, but the only factor really known is today’s perspective of the cost/performance formula.
When purchasing high-technology communication systems, the quandary is that future capabilities will be far greater, and specified vastly differently, than we comprehend today. Simply put, the system buyer has to ask for money today for yet-unknown equipment, to be purchased at an unknown price sometime in the future, for needs that haven’t evolved yet. Because these system replacement projects use up “political” capital as well, all these future unknowns could lead the agency executive to think seriously about entering the private sector job market.
So how is a sale made? In an effort to accommodate this protracted and convoluted purchase process for large agency systems (which are replaced only once every 15, 20 or 25 years), the major manufacturers retain “black box” and “gadget-based” hierarchy systems. They are, in essence, responding to the market needs (read: ours) for a clear, finite, product-evolution approach. Portables should remain the same, but they should be smaller. Mobiles should remain basically the same, but they should become more intelligent-and have alphanumeric heads. Base stations should remain basically the same, but they should be smaller, run cooler and be “digital.” Pagers should be smaller, do more-and have colored housings.
The real problem is that public safety needs are actually driven by other contemporary technologies, not just by the “radio system.” Yet, traditional major manufacturers (insert your favorite vendor’s name here) retain, endorse and promote s-l-o-w system evolution paths that actually perpetuate the traditional purchase process-and they do so at substantial cost. The result is that we get new gadgets, not new capabilities. This is the circumstances part.
The people part involves the maintenance system currently used by system operators. Technicians and engineers servicing public safety customers often continue to support products and systems long after that equipment “should be” worn out. I believe this is done out of respect and commitment to the affected agencies. But the effect of this protective caretaking is that the agencies themselves (us, again) have come to believe that any new system may not “really”be needed. After all, “the techs have been doing a fine job of keeping us up and running.”
So, the purchase process is too slow, the new equipment isn’t really distinctly different and our techs already do a great job keeping up the “old stuff.” What chance does change have in public safety?
Here are some observations for your consideration: Public safety has an established relationship with technical providers-either via equipment purchases or maintenance and support-that will grow. As more aspects of high-tech communications are adopted by public safety (albeit through com-moditized, consumer-type equipment), technical support must expand. With active, creative participation by local service providers, it could explode.