Ottawa’s communications consomm
How do you make 22 radio systems become one? That’s the challenge that the newly amalgamated city of Ottawa, Canada, has taken on.
Although old Ottawa is approaching its sesquicentennial and it has been the Canadian capital since 1867, Ottawa became a “new” city this year. For several years, the Ontario provincial government has been requiring mergers to consolidate local governments and to reduce municipal transfer payments. Toronto, for example, was amalgamated in 1998.
On Jan. 1, 2001, the 11 municipalities that made up the former region of Ottawa-Carleton were compelled by the Ontario government to form a new municipality. Since being reconstituted, the new city’s administration has been trying to integrate a mixed bag of public safety networks.
“The problem is that each of the municipalities that joined the new city had one radio network each,” said Steve Kanellakos, general manager of Ottawa’s emergency and protective services. “In some cases, they had more than one.”
A further complication was that each municipality had gone its own way when it came to choosing equipment.
For instance, “The problem with fire is that you had some people using VHF and others using UHF,” said Garry Rolston of the consulting firm Lapp-Hancock. The Ottawa Transition Board, the provincial agency charged with creating the amalgamated city, hired Lapp-Hancock to recommend ways to integrate the new city’s networks.
“As well, many of the smaller towns and villages were using legacy systems; some of which are 20 years old — and older — and thus clearly out of date,” Rolston said.
Public safety requirements for the new Ottawa are crucial. The city has a fast-growing urban economy, with an annual growth rate of 3% to 4%. Ottawa is now Canada’s third largest municipality, with 785,000 residents, and Ontario’s second largest city in terms of geographic area, covering 2,757 square kilometers.
Integration: an obvious solution
All of the old radio systems that existed before amalgamation are still in place right now. From a practical standpoint, this means that “snow plows on one side of the street can’t talk to those on the other side,” said Kanellakos. The same can be said of Ottawa’s other public works vehicles, and the fire department, too. In fact, the only services not cursed with incompatibility are emergency medical services and the Ottawa Police.
Ottawa EMS isn’t affected because even though it is a municipal agency, the province runs EMS’ Mobility’s CDPD cellular service.
The Ottawa Police isn’t affected because it already amalgamated a few years ago. When it did, it addressed the integration headache by installing an Ericsson 800MHz trunked network.
This network covers what used to be known as the “Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton” or RMOC. An extra layer of government between the provincial and the municipal, the RMOC shared responsibilities with the area’s cities and towns. It ceased to exist when the new city was created. However, as luck would have it, the new city adopted the boundaries of the old RMOC.
As a result, when amalgamation took place on Jan. 1, the Ottawa Police wasn’t affected. Neither was the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which shares some spectrum on the police network. (The RCMP also has its own network.)
The situation begs the obvious question: If the 800MHz network can serve the Ottawa Police, then why can’t it serve all of the city’s other integrated services? On the face of things, that seems to be the obvious solution, Rolston said. “The police have a very extensive 17-site network,” he said. “Adding channels is quite possible, since the Ericsson system has rather large capabilities.”
Steve Kanellakos is enthusiastic, to say the least, about this solution. “Having everyone on one network would be fantastic, especially during large-scale emergencies like the ice storm a few years ago,” he said. “Right now, when police, fire and EMS are on the scene, they can’t talk to each other; at least not without a lot of effort.”
Guns are easy; hoses are hard
So why not just give everyone 800MHz radios and be done with it? Well, the problem is not that simple, Rolston said. The sticking point is the Ottawa Fire Department. Unlike the police, the fire department needs radios that work well indoors; not just in houses, but inside offices, malls and parking garages. So, can the 800MHz system do the job?
“Well, this idea has been investigated in other places,” replied Rolston. “For instance, in Vancouver, the ambulance service was ecstatic when it was added to the police 800MHz network — the coverage was exceptional. However, the same can’t be said for Vancouver Fire & Rescue. When they moved onto the network, Fire & Rescue ran into major problems in downtown Vancouver. There were places where their radio signals just couldn’t get out.”
Extending the network’s reach
Vancouver Fire & Rescue’s experience does serve as the source for a possible solution: vehicular repeaters. The agency installed the small retransmitters on their trucks to boost the signals going to the firefighters’ radios, thus keeping them in touch with the network at all times.
Another answer is bidirectional repeaters. Already mounted in the tunnels of Ottawa’s sewage treatment plant, a repeater system boosts retransmit signals traveling in either direction.
According to Rolston, both options could potentially work for Ottawa’s fire department. To determine the feasibility of the solutions, Ottawa’s Emergency Measures Committee is about to spend (U.S.)$2 million to study whether the city’s 800MHz network can serve everyone. Once the study concludes, the next stage will be to spend a budgeted (U.S.)$4 million to buy new equipment, said Harold Murphy, the Ottawa city manager of emergency services.
Originally, this money was supposed to come from the now-defunct Ottawa Transition Board. However, a clerical error in preparing the new city’s budget led to this expenditure being overlooked. No matter, Murphy said: “We’ll either get the necessary funding from the city in next year’s capital budget, or they’ll find a way to squeeze it out of funds saved during the transition.”
What if it is determined that 800MHz is not a viable solution? This question, lurking behind Ottawa’s network amalgamation, is not being raised much right now, as city staff hope for a straightforward solution to this problem. However, if 800MHz isn’t practicable, it could be possible to employ a two-frequency approach: one that uses 800MHz to link fire trucks to the city’s other services and a second bandwidth to link firefighters to their vehicles.
Another approach would be to put fire on another frequency altogether. However, this would perpetuate the current isolation that Ottawa hopes to end through amalgamation. Therefore, even if a separate-channel approach costs less, chances are that the city will not adopt it willingly.
In the meantime, Ottawa’s 22 networks are being bound together at one public answering point, by a single telephone number. “By calling 580-2400, people can access all city services from one point except for emergency services, which are still at 9-1-1,” Kanellakos said. “We may be aware that we’re running through a patchwork of networks, but at least they’re not.”
Careless is a freelance telecommunications writer based in Ottawa, ON, Canada. His email address is [email protected].