West Point tackles interoperability
At the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., achieving interoperable communications between the academy’s emergency services, its local civilian public-safety partners and the cadets themselves presents unique challenges. The military recently standardized Project 25 trunked radio systems for force protection and other base-related activities. However, the civilian public-safety partners that assist the academy in emergency responses use communications systems that are anything but standardized.
West Point prepares 2nd lieutenants for service in the U.S. Army, which presents additional communications challenges. The training of the cadets involves classroom activities and also field instruction across nearly 16,000 acres of rugged and heavily wooded, upstate New York countryside. Therefore, the interoperable communication system for the academy must support all the normal base activities while also providing backstop communications for cadets using tactical radios, to give cadets and their trainers immediate access to base dispatchers in case of an emergency.
During the summer of 2005, a trunked radio system was installed at West Point, which is situated on the mountainous banks of the Hudson River, extending many miles into wooded and treacherous terrain. M/A-COM’s P25IP VHF system was selected because the characteristics of VHF are more conducive to this terrain. The system required an interoperability solution that, first and foremost, communicated with the surrounding area’s various police, fire and medical organizations. However, the post also had some unique interoperability requirements.
To meet the wide-ranging requirements, an IP-based NetworkFirst interoperability solution from M/A-COM also was installed to enable the connection of all disparate radio systems into the P25 trunked system, in order to instantaneously establish communications between the base, academy personnel on field exercises, state and local first responders and even academy guests such as ROTC units bringing their own communication equipment.
The 1300 users of the trunked radio network can now operate within their own talkgroups, and yet, when situations dictate, have immediate access to the town’s police, county EMS and state police. This level of interoperability greatly increases the academy’s effectiveness in protecting the base, its personnel and the cadets.
With any interoperability solution, making the equipment work often is the simple portion of the project — interagency cooperation generally is more problematic. In this case, meetings between the local police, state police and several county EMS services were held and memorandums of understanding were established. The critical maxim is that local agencies must communicate before an incident if they expect to communicate during an incident. This situation is not unique to West Point and is a challenge to just about anyone running a communications system where multiple agencies are involved. Once consensus and understanding is achieved, the actual equipment deployment can begin in earnest.
At West Point, the interoperability site utilizes three towers, a 12.5 kw uninterruptible power supply, a M/A-COM OpenSky gateway and 12 digital voice units (DVUs). This equipment is connected via a fiber link back to a network-switching center. The DVUs can be configured with DC-based E&M signaling, VOX or tone signaling, and will balance the audio between systems.
Four of the DVUs are used for conventional VHF mutual aid communications. These units successfully link to the local agencies, which are assigned permanent talkgroups and are monitored directly on five consoles and/or the West Point emergency service radios. One DVU is used for a public network connection, which lets a radio make a call out to the local wireline network or allows a landline-originated call to connect to an interoperability call by entering the ID number of the radio. System users find this helpful in situations where a supervisor may be located deep inside a building or may be outside of the coverage area.
The academy holds 12 weeks of field training each summer during which cadets are exposed to military communications and utilize low-band SINCGAR radios. This equipment is mounted in tactical vehicles, located at first-aid stations and carried in “man-pack” harnesses. The DVUs can be configured to operate on three basic connections: receive (RX) audio, transmit (TX) audio and push-to-talk (P2T).
West Point technicians can connect directly to the handset jack on the front of the transceiver, which is set to a locally published frequency. Calls can be monitored on any dispatch console, received on a radio via a SINCGAR talkgroup or patched to any talkgroup using the P25 system’s IP-based console. During the training period, any personnel with a tactical radio can tune to the assigned frequency and communicate with a dispatcher. Because SINCGARs can be configured in re-transmission modes, a communications net can be established to re-transmit the tactical signal. This configuration greatly increases coverage. The process of integrating the radio is fairly simple. First, the pin-outs on the connector have to be researched. Once that is completed, a connector is obtained, and some simple connections to the DVU are established.
Another unique challenge for West Point was the integration of an ICOM model IC-706MKIIG radio. This unit is designed for amateur radio use but, on request, ICOM will configure the unit to operate on all bands. The unit operates from 1.8 MHz to 450 MHz at power ranging from 2 W to 40 W. West Point decided to integrate this unit into its system in anticipation of unexpected future operational requirements. For instance, West Point can tune this unit to the marine band, MURS, FRS, citizens band or amateur frequencies.
Throughout the year, West Point also hosts several ROTC and academic events where outside agencies bring their own communications equipment. The ICOM radio can be tuned to the outside agency nets, and the traffic can be monitored at a console or patched to any relevant talkgroups. The transceiver can operate in simplex or half-duplex modes, with sub-audible tones. Of course, this only can be accomplished when no re-broadcasting rules are violated. Like the SINCGAR, the ICOM operates on VOX signaling and was fairly simple to integrate into the gateway using the supplied accessory jack on the rear of the unit. West Point uses a STICO tri-band antenna for the VHF and UHF transmissions.
West Point also dedicated two of the DVUs to use conventional repeaters. These repeaters were programmed into each of the base’s nearly 1400 subscriber radios to serve a backup in case of a systemwide failure; however, they will be used primarily in conjunction with the trunked radio system. Again, West Point hosts several outside organizations during the year; often those organizations have their own equipment, but they are unable to obtain the proper authorization to use their local frequencies on post. In these instances, West Point can disclose these repeater frequencies to them. They can then be patched into any relevant talkgroups though consoles. The conventional repeaters can also be patched together through the DVUs. This feature enables West Point to increase its conventional coverage for those not on the trunked radio system.
A Nextel unit occupies another one of the slots. This unit can be used to receive a P2T call, which can be patched to any one of West Point’s nearly 200 talkgroups. A Nextel car kit was used to obtain the TX and RX audio and the P2T. This unit works fairly well, but does have one drawback — it can be used for incoming calls only.
Ryan Currie is the site manager at M/A-COM Wireless Systems. Previously, he was frequency manager at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and served for five years in the Marine Corps as an air traffic control communications technician.