How do you spell interoperability?
Predictably, interoperability was the predominant theme at the APCO national conference in Nashville, Tenn., and the IAFC Fire-Rescue International trade show in Kansas City, Mo., both conducted in August.
Several system vendors provided interoperability solutions as a subset of their regular, proprietary products. Don Scott with JPS Communications, Raleigh, N.C., reported that business was “good.” Unfortunately, many of the organization “wheels” are avoiding some arithmetic problems associated with this laudable goal of improved operations.
A nationwide ubiquitous Project 25 (interoperable) radio system would be costly and logistically complex to design, build, install, connect, implement, use and maintain. We heard several numbers bandied about at the APCO show, and my derived average was about $60 billion to refit public safety nationwide — with hardware alone.
That P.O. should delight the Major firm, but, gee-whiz, folks, isn’t a huge system comprised of $3,200 user units a bit much for just a one-way radio system? That’s right. Remember it’s just a one-way system. Portable and mobile radio users can communicate just one way at a time, unlike our commercial cousins using small-“c” cell phones.
And then the issue of spectrum is necessarily intertwined with discussions of procurement and deployment. The Defense Department has dropped the idea of channel-sharing with public safety in the 138-146 MHz range because we’re at war. Nextel Communications continues to sniff around for an opportunity to right their wrongs by re-bundling blocks of 700 MHz and 800 MHz spectrum. (Hey, I thought we were supposed to have unbundled network elements? Oh, sorry. That’s for when Nextel is only a telephone.)
So what’s a fellow to do — especially a fellow with a limited radio budget and the operational needs to expand and develop the network, but with no clear path to the future?
Mobilfone, the regional paging carrier in Kansas City, has engaged the services of an energetic young Washington attorney named Michael Higgs who works in Brother Bob’s House of Justice.
I was talking with Michael who, as are all good Washington attorneys, is willing to listen to your ideas and then charge you for them. The subjects of homeland security, nationwide communications, the FCC, the heritage of attorneys and general government largesse were all discussed — before we zeroed in on homeland security and its uncle, interoperability.
Because it looks as though we will have a new cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security, it can only mean there will be new shoulder patches, new logos, new uniforms and — you guessed it — another new radio system. In an effort to curb the feeding frenzy of corporate lobbyists, to help sedate the federal budget economists, and to actually provide a suitably workable solution for public safety, I believe there is a (kinda) simple solution for interoperable homeland security communications.
Michael even said he thought it had merit, so he may have to be paid for that opinion, too. The solution isn’t too hard and only has two parts.
Part one involves regular local working folks: the local police, fire, EMS and public works departments that regularly handle “routine” emergencies. For interoperable, on-scene communications, these users simply need: a) a tested pre-plan, and b) some conventional, simplex, analog channels.
Part two: If “all politics is local,” then all disaster communications also is local — at least local to the emergency services responders. However, communications related to the administration of the various responding federal agencies may not be local.
For administrators within this (new homeland security) agency, there may be a need for a communications system of far greater scope. Operating requirements, as often proffered by high-tech system advocates (including hardware vendors and users who are protectors of the vital public safety secrets), at least include the words “digital” and “encrypted.”
An interesting opportunity presents itself because a communication system that closely parallels the predicted operational needs for the new department already exists. It’s called Nextel. And from the company’s most recent 10-K filing, it appears that Nextel needs cash. Perhaps a straightforward business deal could be struck involving the bulk purchase of both handsets and airtime minutes (pooled by geopolitical districts) for use by “non local” agency operatives.
Sure, federal fixed systems would still have a place. You can bet that the FBI, DEA, ATF and Secret Service would still need their “localized” conventional terrestrial systems. But a big segment of interagency interoperable communications could be handled using the system re-proven daily by construction workers, shipping companies and small businesses. After all, these regular local folks have been relying on economic interoperability long before talking about disasters became fashionable.
Dunford, MRT’s public safety consultant, is technical services consultant for the Lenexa, Kan., police department. He is a member of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International. His e-mail address is [email protected].