Interoperability at its finest
The spirit of cooperation and camaraderie that marked President George W. Bush’s second-term inauguration in January didn’t just involve politicians breaking bread and making civil for a day; it extended into the streets, where the first responders who amassed to make the event safe were all in perfect sync — at least from a mobile communications standpoint.
The Council of Governments (CoG), a confederation of 19 municipalities surrounding and including Washington — Alexandria, Va.; Fairfax County, Va.; Montgomery County, Md.; and various city and federal agencies within the capital — blanketed the inaugural parade route using interoperable equipment owned by the U.S. Marshals Service.
The CoG members also worked with first responders from outside the capital area that were brought in to help with the massive job of securing a presidential inauguration in the post-9/11 era. The interoperable equipment made it possible for everyone — inside and outside the Beltway — to communicate by literally being on the same frequency.
“You had the U.S. Park Police on VHF and a cache of (1000) 800 MHz radios that CoG owns,” said Capt. Eddie Reyes of the Alexandria Police Department, who is detailed to CoG via the National Institute of Justice to coordinate interoperability for the region. “We brought in multiple officers from multiple states throughout the United States and gave each platoon leader one of the cached 800 MHz radios. I steer it, but I look to all these multiple agencies to help bring it all together.”
That meant setting up a two-unit command post in front of the Smithsonian Institution, about 5 blocks from the White House and 14 blocks from the Capitol building, to gather and relay the radio signals from the different agencies using the equipment provided by the U.S. Marshals.
The main unit, a converted mobile home, was the central command post; the other, a trailer, contained much of the interoperable equipment that linked the radios throughout the mall. The third piece of equipment was the antennas themselves and the pole used to extend them.
“We actually provided the entire interoperability piece. We provided all the equipment, the switch and the manpower for it,” said Dave Robertson, chief inspector for the U.S. Marshals Service. “We were on park property, and the [U.S.] Park Service was in charge of the operation, but we were working hand-in-hand with the Park Service and the Park Police to provide the interoperability solution.”
That brought into sync six different radio frequencies: two in 800 MHz, two in VHF and two in UHF running through 100 W consoles attached to a 100-foot high mast with two STI-CO Industries’ interoperable antennas. In addition, there were four Futurecom portable repeaters aligned on rooftops along the parade route to support the 800 MHz talk groups.
“From the Capitol to the White House is quite an amount of distance, and you couldn’t accomplish that with line-of-sight,” Reyes said.
The antenna layout allowed communications from the diverse first responders to be segmented according to group and yet controlled by individuals monitoring everything from the command post.
“By having the six radios, two in each of the major public radio frequencies, we pre-programmed and downloaded all the agencies that were here in the local area,” Reyes said. “Then we had national tactical channels for each of those three bandwidths.”
Outside agencies working the event were asked in advance to pre-program their radios with national tactical channels, Reyes said, “regardless of what bandwidth they were in” at home.
Coordinating the security to watch the mass of humanity on hand for the event was a job in and of itself, with responsibility spread out among the agencies.
“One group came in to support [D.C.] metropolitan police and another group to support U.S. Park Police,” Reyes said. “The units coming in to help out the U.S. Capitol Police were in NTAC [national tactical channel] 1, and the units to help metro police were in NTAC 3.”
The task was made easier by the performance of the equipment used that day, particularly STI-CO’s antennas.
“It’s been in the market since the beginning of last year,” said Kyle Swiat, the company’s vice president of sales, who was on hand for both the equipment installation and the inauguration. “It’s a tri-band or quad-band disc cone antenna that allows you to transmit and receive simultaneously on different bands using just that one antenna.”
The equipment had already been used for the dedication of the World War II Memorial in Washington and the Republican National Convention in New York City, among other events, so both the vendor and the first responders knew it could transceive VHF (from 150 MHz to 174 MHz); the aviation band (from 108 MHz to 130 MHz); the whole UHF band (from 406 MHz to 512 MHz); and the whole 800 MHz band (from 806 MHz to 896 MHz).
“It comes in a case and can be used in tactical situations — throw it on a tripod and use it in the field or use it on a command post or mounted on a building,” Swiat said.
The U.S. Marshals owned and installed the two antennas and other equipment used for the inauguration and lent them for inter-agency communications.
“We put the tower up, let it run, and when it’s all over, bring it down, take it back to the ship and clean it up and tune it up for next time we go out again,” Robertson said.
The equipment, in addition to multi-tasking, also had to stand up to sub-freezing weather conditions with high winds and snow during the setup.
“Although the weather was brutal, they behaved very well,” Roberson said.
For many of the involved agencies, the inaugural detail was just an addendum on a normal workday.
Robertson, for instance, was “also supporting three other details besides the interoperability piece … some other operational elements of the Capitol Police, the Metropolitan Police and the U.S. Marshals specialized units that were also operating in the area. We were doing several things at once; it just so happens the interoperability piece was the most visible.”
Outside the mall, life went on as usual. Alexandria first responders, for example, also detailed personnel to a more general command post set up at Dulles International Airport. This command post was keeping a close eye on everything in the D.C. area, not just the parade route. With its personnel spread thin by the two events, the Alexandria police used a neighboring company, SyTech, to open up a communications channel.
“The Alexandria police were still running their day-to-day operations,” besides working with the “robust command post” for intelligence gathering at Dulles, said Reyes. To communicate with that command post, the police used two 800 MHz mobile radios connected to a server and sent via commercial DSL over the Internet to the command center.
“The fire official and the police official that were at this command center at Dulles were able to hear the day-to-day traffic of what’s going on in Alexandria and were able to give an update of any suspicious vehicles, suspicious calls and to update the center as it happened in Alexandria,” Reyes said.
SyTech, an electronic surveillance systems and law-enforcement equipment vendor based outside Alexandria, provided the voice-over-IP (VoIP) link to reach where normal 800 MHz radios would not.
“They didn’t have any connectivity into the [Multi-Agency Command],” said Rick Kinnison, a SyTech design engineer. “They had a connection to the Internet, and we have a connection to the Internet. Over that public Internet, we provided a VPN to the two locations and pushed VoIP over that.”
That activity, while peripheral, allowed Alexandria to lend manpower and expertise to the events in the capital without missing a beat at home. On the mall, where the parade route was being secured, things went about as smoothly as could be expected for an event as large — and potentially rife with danger — as a presidential inauguration, which demanded cooperation from so many different agencies.
“It came out very well,” Robertson said. “All the equipment worked as we put it up. We had no SNAFUs.”
Just a lot of cooperation and interoperability.