Understanding wireless communications in public safety
No one book can possibly cover everything you might ever need to know if you are planning a communications project. However, the authors will at least try to highlight the main issues and explain the terminology so that you can be an informed consumer. In addition, the authors have tried to point you toward other resources that will provide more detail about areas you want to understand better.
What it takes to succeed
Successful projects are usually the result of careful planning. Planning helps to create a disciplined, businesslike approach to the project and fosters communication among groups, often resulting in partnerships.
c A plan – The first step in planning is to gather information about agency needs, available assets and resources, existing communications infrastructure, end-user requirements and other related issues. A plan is important because it defines the project’s goals, describes the specific problems or needs that are being addressed, lists any potential partners and their roles, identifies staffing requirements, outlines a marketing strategy, proposes a detailed budget and time line, and includes an operational plan that addresses how the project will be funded now and into the future.
c Time, money and resources – No project can succeed without adequate amounts of time, money, and other resources. Thus, to be successful, time must be allocated to:
– Identify, recruit, and assign or hire necessary staff.
– Identify potential project partners and create formal relationships.
– Identify potential sources of funding and apply for funds.
– Identify and procure appropriate communications technologies.
– Implement the project.
c Getting started – Before going forward on a communications project, you will need to answer a number of questions. While collecting the information may seem tedious, you will be well rewarded down the line when you find that you are asked to provide this same information to potential funding sources, management, and others.
What do you have now? One of the first things you need to identify are your existing business functions. In other words, answer the questions:
– What do we do?
– How do we do it?
– What are our core functions?
– How does or will technology support those functions?
Plus, you should try to identify the benefits of such a project, both the tangible, measurable benefits (decreased maintenance costs and improved coverage) and the intangible benefits (improved morale and better customer service).
What do you need? Identifying what you need is not simply making a list of equipment. You should start at a much higher level and try to determine the kinds of functions/tasks you want to be able to perform. Are you wanting to add new capabilities to your existing system? What are they? Who will use them, and how often? Will the existing system support those new capabilities?
Review your inventory to see how much, if any, of your existing equipment should be retained. What equipment will need to be replaced because it is obsolete or too expensive to maintain?
What are your options? Now that you know what you have and what you need (at a functional level), you are ready to start reviewing your options. Essentially you will be faced with two options: purchasing a dedicated system or contracting with a commercial service provider.
If you are in an area of the country that has access to commercial services, you will have to research the available services providers for cost, coverage, services, level of support, etc., to determine how well their services meet your needs.
How much will it cost? Cost is one of the most difficult items to accurately predict because certain critical items are often left out. The purchase price of the equipment or service alone is not sufficient to understand howmuch a system will cost you over a 10-year period (the average lifespan of a communications system). You need to look at the full life cycle cost of the system, including such things as maintenance, personnel and license costs.
c Getting help – At this point you may be starting to feel a little overwhelmed with the size and complexity of the project you have taken on. Don’t. Many agencies, both large and small, have successfully undertaken radio projects over the years. However, if you still feel that this task is beyond your ability to handle or will take more time than you can reasonably provide, you can get help from a number of sources.
Other agencies. Other agencies near you have done this before. If you do not know who to call, contact your local Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) chapter and ask them for a list of agencies that have recently completed a project similar to yours. Ask them for help. They are usually glad to send you copies of requests for proposals (RFPs), contracts, coverage requirements, system test plans, or any other type of sample documentation you may need.
Consultants. If you decide that you need more dedicated and expert help than can be obtained from your neighbor agencies, you may want to consider hiring a consultant. A consultant can perform a number of the project tasks for you, from conducting the inventory and needs analysis to developing budgetary cost estimates to creating an RFP to assisting you with the project management. You determine the level and extent of services you wish to purchase.
Vendors. One of the most useful sources of information are the vendors of the products you are considering. Many have created libraries of articles (often called “white papers”) written by industry experts, which explain the advantages and disadvantages of the various technologies. Most want to help educate you because they know that the better informed you are, the better buying decision you will make. Just remember that they are trying to sell you their product, so accept their information, but do the product comparisons yourself.
Planning the project
c Realistic schedule – One of the first things you need to develop when planning your project is an implementation schedule. The schedule should identify all major tasks and milestones and should allow enough time for the project to be developed, funded, and implemented. If you are applying for a grant, you may also need to add a period after implementation to comply with the grant’s evaluation requirements.
A clear time line, identifying all of the milestones you expect to reach during the various phases of the project’s implementation, is essential. Not only will it help all of your team to understand what has to be done and when, it will help reviewers get a much better perspective on what you are proposing.
c Project team(s) – Some projects are large enough that two project teams are needed and formed: a project steering committee and a project implementation team.
The steering committee is usually more involved with high-level planning and policy decisions, without getting actively involved in the details of the project. The steering committee often is composed of high-level representatives of the user agencies and/or departments, such as city/county managers, sheriffs, police and fire chiefs, finance directors, and sometimes elected officials. The purpose of the steering committee is to ensure support for the project at the highest levels of the organization. You need political, financial, and administrative support for your project to become a reality. Without that support, your project may never even get started, regardless of the need.
The other project team (or the only one in those cases where two teams are not needed or perhaps not possible) is the implementation team. The implementation team is the keystone upon which your project’s success depends. This team must have the ability to effectively deal with both the technical complexity of a communications project and the organizational challenges associated with managing the project.
c Project manager – Like any other team, the person selected to lead the implementation group is critical. The key abilities needed in the project manager are organizational skills and people skills. Knowledge of the technical aspects of the project is helpful, but not critical. The project manager ensures that the team works smoothly together, makes sure that all tasks are completed on time and correctly, and solves the various problems that arise during the project. Pick someone who knows how to get things done.
c Budget – For funding administrators to evaluate your request for funds, you must be able to explain your budget in detail, particularly if you are applying for federal funds. The budget must be reasonable for the tasks and equipment proposed, and the relationship of the budget to the project plan must be clearly identified and communicated.
Budgets should include all costs associated with the project. This could include costs for personnel, fringe benefits, computer hardware and software, other end-user equipment, telecommunications services and related equipment, furniture and space, supplies and maintenance. If a new facility is needed to house personnel and/or equipment, construction costs may also be included.
If you are applying for a state or federal grant, make sure you obtain a copy of the grant application guidelines. Most grants require detailed budget information and mandate that it follow a specific format. Failure to follow the rules often results in immediate disqualification of the grant application.
For many agencies, obtaining funds is the most difficult part of a communications project. Projects like this are expensive, and, as a result, funding may take months or even years to accomplish. Begin your efforts for obtaining funds far in advance of when you need the new system to be operational. More detailed information about public safety funding can be found in the Report on Funding Mechanisms for Public Safety Radio Communications, published by the Public Safety Wireless Network (PSWN) Program.
c Types of funds – For most local agencies, the types of funds available fall into two general categories: local revenue funds and grants. Local revenue funds are obtained by local governments through local taxes (e.g., sales tax, property tax), user fees, and other user charges, plus through the issuing of debt instruments, like bonds. Grants are funds made available to local agencies from state and federal government agencies, as well as from private sources (like foundations). Grants usually require you to submit a formal application to justify your request for funding.
c Sources of funds – The process you must go through to obtain funding for your project will vary depending on who owns the funds you want. Remember, to fully fund your project, you may need to get money from several different entities. In fact, many of the federal grants require a certain amount of matching funding.
Federal sources. Local governments receive public safety funding from federal sources primarily through grants and cooperative agreements. A third source of funds for law enforcement has been asset forfeiture funds. (Most of the federal public safety funding in the last decade has been primarily for law enforcement, with little specifically earmarked for fire and emergency medical services.) Grants fall into two categories: block (or formula) grants and discretionary (or categorical) grants. Most public safety funding has come through the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). However, funds for infrastructure projects like communications are also possibly available through the U.S. Department of Commerce [National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)], the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). A sample list of some of the programs that have provided funding recently, including the name of their funding and administering agency(ies) and their matching funds requirements, is shown in Table 3-1 on page PS4.
c “Selling” your need – Regardless of who you ask for funds, you must convince them that your project is necessary and that you will provide the most beneficial use of their dollars. The competition for funds is intense, and everyone believes that his or her needs are real. Getting the funds often depends more on your ability to present your needs in a businesslike and professional manner than on the need itself.
The review team needs to know that the project you propose is worth doing and that your team can actually do it. The feasibility of the project will be judged based on your technical approach, the skills of your team members, and your budget estimates, schedule, and time line, as well as the long-term operational costs of the project. Failure to clearly define any of these items could be cause for rejection of your request.
Involve as many people as possible in reviewing your project request before you submit it to the funding agency.
Buying what you need
Once funding has been secured, the purchasing process can begin. This section discusses the primary ways that communications systems have been purchased but does not attempt to itemize every variation that has been used.
c How to buy – Most government agencies have specific purchasing rules and regulations that must be followed for purchases to be legal. You should consult with the staff from your purchasing division or department to determine the rules that govern your agency.
c Competitive procurement – A competitive procurement usually involves the development of purchasing specifications by the local agency and then issuing of a Request for Quotation (RFQ) and/or a Request for Proposal (RFP). Multiple vendors respond to the RFQ with a bid (or to the RFP with a proposal) to provide what the agency has requested. A competitive procurement is designed to encourage competition among vendors to encourage fair pricing.
An RFQ is generally used to purchase commodities, which can be easily described and for which there are several suppliers. Most awards that result from RFQs are based on low bid. An RFP is used for purchasing more complex items, like communications systems, for which a number of variables besides price may influence an award decision. For example, other variables could include maintenance hours, financial stability of the company, references from other clients, and ease of use.
c Noncompetitive procurement – Local governments can contract for services in many cases without going out to bid. Check with your city/county purchasing department to see if there are any clauses in your policies and procedures that would work to your benefit. Two common examples that are used with communications are sole source procurement and contract for operational services.
Sole source procurement. In a sole source procurement, goods and/or services can be purchased from a vendor that has previously been awarded a contract, usually through a competitive bid process. The reasoning is that if that vendor is the “sole source” for additional items that are compatible with items already supplied, then another competitive procurement does not need to be conducted.
c Contract for operational services – Agencies contract for many types of operational services, like cellular telephone service and pager service. Many purchasing divisions treat service contracts differently than they treat contracts for purchase. You may only need to show that you have sufficient funds in your budget to pay for the service you want. In some cases, you may not even have to prove that since the belief is that you will cancel the service if you have no more money in your budget. Some agencies have purchased mobile data cellular service [e.g., Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) service] through noncompetitive service agreements and, thus, have completely avoided the competitive procurement of radio infrastructure equipment.
As always, you should confirm with purchasing that there are no restrictions to your contracting for services.
c Cooperative purchasing – Cooperative purchasing refers to the practice of buying from another agency’s competitive procurement. The most common type is the ability of a local agency to buy from the state’s price agreement list. State governments routinely solicit bids for thousands of commonly used items, like computers and printers, at fixed prices. Vendors promise to supply all of the items the state wants at that fixed price for a fixed period, frequently one year. Local governments can buy from these awards throughout the year at volume discount prices, usually without going through their own bidding process.
c Leasing – Leasing is not really a type of procurement, but rather is a way to pay once a procurement has been made. One of the above procurement methods would be used to select a vendor and determine a price. Once that was done, the local government could decide to finance the purchase and pay for it over a period of months or years, rather than purchase the equipment outright.
Leasing can be advantageous in those cases where you do not receive all of your funding at one time. For example, if sales tax revenues are funding your project, the revenues are spread out over a number of years. In that case, it might make sense to also spread your payments out over a similar number of years. The total cost of the purchase will be higher (because of interest charges), but you will get use of the system sooner than if you wait until all of the revenues are received.
c Outsourcing – Outsourcing is one of the newer methods of procurement, at least at the local government level. Outsourcing refers to hiring an outside company to perform services traditionally performed by agency staff. The level of service can vary, from just providing the people to operate agency equipment to contracting for provision of people and equipment.
c Request for information (RFI) – Technically, this is not a procurement. However, it can allow you to gather information in a structured manner that will allow you to determine what products and services are currently on the market and their associated costs. Generally, the vendors provide only estimates of costs, but these are extremely useful in creating your budget.
An RFI usually describes the scope of the project, your projected time line, and any other descriptive information about the project. Vendors are asked to provide information about their suggested solution, with supporting product material and cost estimate information. In some cases, vendors have been required to respond to an RFI to be eligible to move to the next step and receive the RFP.
c Competitive procurement (RFP) – The goal of this section is to provide additional details about competitive procurements using an RFP. It is not intended to cover every aspect of the procurement process, but rather is intended to give you an overview of what is involved. Specific requirements for the RFP should be requested from your local purchasing manager.
c Request for proposal (RFP) – As mentioned previously, an RFP is used for purchasing more complex items for which a number of variables besides price are important to the purchasing decision. The following steps are involved in the RFP process (and are summarized in figure 4-1 at the left.