Cooperation gets more than lip service
Public-safety agencies have approached interoperable communications from all directions — from proposed nationwide public-safety radio systems to statewide network deployments to local initiatives.
In the section of Virginia known as Hampton Roads, local public-safety organizations are building toward regional interoperability one piece at a time. York County and James City County, the founding partners in a Project 25 (P25) radio network that has served the Virginia Peninsula since 2005, recently welcomed nearby Gloucester County as a new participant. Gloucester County’s entry will add five more radio towers to the Motorola Astro system, bringing the total to 14.
By some accounts, the three counties are taking the best possible route to seamless communications among agencies and jurisdictions. “They really could be the model for regional interoperability,” said Patty Holtschneider, a Motorola vice president who works with the Virginia counties.
“We have done what others are talking about,” said Terry Hall, emergency communications manager for York County and manager of the multi-jurisdiction P25 radio project.
Public-safety agencies in York and James City counties and in the city of Williamsburg have a long history of close collaboration, which evolved because of the area’s tangled political boundaries. “You can drive down a road and one minute be in Williamsburg and the next in York and the next in James City, then back into York,” said Tal Luton, chief of the James City County fire department.
As soon as he joined the department 26 years ago, Luton noticed a strong spirit of cooperation. “The two fire departments from the two different counties functioned almost essentially as one,” he said. “We had automatic mutual aid. We had different radio systems, but we were on compatible frequencies. We had each others’ frequencies on our radios, so we could talk to each other.”
As each county determined it was time to replace its aging public-safety radio system, each hired a consultant to recommend a way forward. But it wasn’t long before the jurisdictions were talking about pooling resources.
“Both of our jurisdictions — totally separate political entities — got together and figured we could put in fewer tower sites and have a better level of interoperability,” by joining forces, Hall said.
Following a joint procurement, the counties decided to implement a P25-compliant Motorola 800 MHz simulcast system with 20 channels. The system covers the two counties with nine towers linked by a Sonet microwave loop. The digital system accommodates mobile data terminals as well as mobile and portable radios.
One strong argument for joining forces was the money the counties could save. “We were able to recognize, right off the bat, about $3.5 million worth of savings just by putting up fewer towers and being less redundant,” Hall said. “At the end of the project, where we sit today, we estimate we saved about $5 million on the entire project.”
Along with the two counties, several local organizations have joined the network as paying tenants. They include the Colonial National Parks Service, The College of William and Mary, the city of Williamsburg police and fire departments and the security organization for Anheuser-Busch’s Kingsmill on the James resort.
When Williamsburg’s police and fire departments got the invitation to join the network, no one was bothered by the fact that the city wouldn’t own the infrastructure, said Mike Yost, Williamsburg’s chief of police. “We’ve worked with these folks for decades. Trust was never an issue. We just wanted to be sure that the system was as robust as it was claimed to be.”
According to Hall, that’s quite robust indeed. The system provides better than 99% coverage. Also, under the terms of the contract with Motorola, the microwave link must stay in service 99.999% of the time, he said, adding that the network’s capacity is more than adequate. “We’ve never had a busy on the system, and we’ve had over eight million push-to-talks,” he said.
Along with the radio network and subscriber units, the two counties and Williamsburg each contracted with Motorola for a new emergency dispatching system. The 911 centers are entirely redundant, so if one of them becomes unavailable, personnel at another can handle the neighboring agency’s calls.
That came in handy the time a lightning strike rendered one of the centers unusable. “All the dispatchers in the one center simply started answering calls for the other 911 center,” Hall said. “All they did was program in the password.”
Dispatchers also can shift to another center if their own goes down. “There have been two occasions when we’ve moved operations to York County for a period of time. Of course, we have the ability to go to James City as well, and operate from there,” Yost said.
Gloucester County had considered building a new network of its own, but it decided eventually to join the regional system. The county’s goals were to improve upon the coverage of its aging UHF and VHF systems, gain interoperability between its fire and sheriff’s departments — and with neighboring jurisdictions — and gain greater channel capacity, said Garrey Curry Jr., director of public works and the county’s project manager for the P25 deployment.
“Those three critical items were easily solved by the regional system,” Curry said, adding that the promise of standby radio and dispatching capacity also were attractive.
Gloucester County will take about 18 months to deploy its towers and other equipment and build a new emergency operations and communications center, including the same 911 technology the other partners are using.
The county is tapping capital reserve funds to finance part of the project and the balance through Motorola Finance, Curry said. The other partners made similar lease arrangements, which allow them to make payments for a number of years and then take ownership at the end of the term, according to Hall. “However, we have — since Day One — and will continue forever to go after grants,” he said.
State fire and public-safety programs, and grants from the Department of Homeland Security, have funded items such as the purchase of portable radios and mobile data terminals, he said. In addition, fees from the tenant agencies and from wireless carriers that co-locate antennas on the towers help fund system maintenance. Separate from the P25 project, the 16 jurisdictions that make up the Hampton Roads Planning District have used $3.2 million of a $6 million federal port security grant to establish interoperability among their emergency operations centers.
The quest for federal funding has spurred more local governments to cooperate on regional communications systems, a trend that started two or three years ago, Motorola’s Holtschneider said.
“There was some grant funding that came out that said P25, as well as regional interoperability, were two major initiatives that would help ensure that you could get some grant money,” she said. “It didn’t mean you’d actually get it, but you’d get a better shot.”
For governments trying to establish these regional systems, one of the biggest challenges isn’t technical, but political: how to avoid turf battles. “A lot of our customers want to own it all, so to speak,” Holtschneider said, adding that thoughtful governance can help avert disputes. “They really have to set up some sort of cooperative agreement, and they have to put up some policy teams with the different jurisdictions.”
Although they enter the project as equals, governments creating these regional systems usually put one agency in charge of the procurement, to provide a single point of contact for vendors, she said.
The policy team that York and James City Counties created includes the county administrators and a project manager from each county, plus their chief law enforcement officers, fire chiefs, attorneys, purchasing agents and chief financial officers. The team schedules regular meetings and makes sure all the principals — not substitutes — take part.
“We simply bring any of the issues forward, and the policy team votes — everybody with equal votes,” Hall said.
Open communications have kept things running smoothly. “When we started this process, I thought there were going to be a lot of political issues. I can tell you, we’ve had zero.”
When it came to questions of ownership, the partners followed the principle of share and share alike. With an unbalanced number of towers covering York and James City counties, that solution wasn’t obvious from the start. “You’ve got five towers in one jurisdiction and four towers in the other,” Hall said. “The jurisdiction that has five, how are they considered equal if they’re paying for another one?” The counties finally decided that since they benefited equally from the regional system, they would split the cost of the network backbone equally.
Fleet mapping — assigning channels and building talk groups — was another tough issue the partners had to manage, James City’s Luton said. “I had to work with my counterpart in the York County fire department, and then the James City police department had to work with their counterparts in the York County sheriff’s department.” The counties also had to establish protocols for using features on the new radios that didn’t exist on their old ones, he said.
Tenant agencies also helped make decisions about the network, Williamsburg’s Yost said. “All the chiefs sat at a table and discussed all the options and who wanted what.”
For local governments that want to build similar regional systems, Hall offered a few words of advice. “Form a team, get commitments, get buy-in,” he said. “Have all the players meet routinely, and have everyone do what they say they’re going to do. And when you have political issues, don’t hide them. Lay them out on the table, address them and move on.”
THE SYSTEM INCLUDES:
- Motorola 800 MHz single, integrated simulcast system
- 20-channels (multiple talk groups)
- Nine communication tower sites (five more to be added)
- Looped microwave network
- 800/700 MHz cross-compatible mobiles and portables
- Digital/analog-compatible equipment
- P25 open architecture system that will allow for interoperability (current/future)
- ADP/digital encryption
Source: York County, Va