IP is not public safety’s silver bullet
Many of us who attended IWCE 2007 in Las Vegas in March were bombarded by presentations and products that proclaimed IP as the solution to all of public safety’s communications problems.
We also were told that, because the Department of Defense has certified IP systems for command-and-control communications for use in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan, we — the domestic public-safety folks — should get our heads out of the sand and embrace IP as the solution.
Even MRT Editor Glenn Bischoff jumped on the IP bandwagon, first in a column that appeared in the e-newsletter MRT Bulletin on March 28 — written while we were still at IWCE — and again in this edition’s First Word (see page 6).
As industry analyst Andy Seybold wrote in July 2006, “We all know we are heading quickly toward an all-IP world. IP has been elevated to the role of solver of all communications problems, wired and wireless, voice, data, audio and video.” However, Seybold also opined — in technical terms that I don’t fully understand — that he is concerned with some yet unresolved flaws and shortcomings regarding IP technologies. He advised public safety to cautiously move toward IP, particularly for wireless applications.
I have spent almost 50 years in public safety (as a volunteer firefighter and career law enforcement officer/executive) with a focus on first-responder communications. I must concur with Seybold’s observation that public safety must be cautious as it begins to embrace IP in a world of fast-changing technologies.
For the most part, IP relies on a network, which implies the existence of many pieces of hardware and software between points A and B. If any piece fails, then the transmitted message does not reach the intended recipient. Also, a reliable wireless link is a must — either unit-to-unit or through a network. Should that wireless link fail, then IP is worthless.
Many industry people who are selling IP products and solutions are calling for public safety to abandon its traditional land mobile radios and systems, claiming they have become obsolete.
Well, wait just a minute. I seem to remember reports of how, a few years back, the military mistakenly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, allegedly because of a technology failure. Public safety must pay attention to such issues and not allow the industry to push us to possible communications failure just because they say they have the silver bullet.
There is no question in my mind that IP is a good thing. It has helped us solve many problems and allows easier information sharing.
But there are limitations. As my friend, associate and industry consultant John Powell has said, “IP is just the pipe connecting one or more applications, voice and/or data. Interoperability can occur only if those applications are interoperable.” Powell also has said that IP is not a good over-the-air protocol because of the potential for error and/or packet loss during a transmission. He further cautions that IP is a decades-old protocol designed strictly for a wired environment.
Consequently, let me end with a comment relative to the closing words of MRT‘s editor in his March 28th column: “Give public safety time. It will come around.” Yes, we will come around when it is clear that IP has overcome the many failures we see in everyday use. Public safety simply cannot tolerate such failures in a mission-critical environment.
Harlin McEwen has been in the field of law enforcement for more than 47 years. He has served for more than 27 years as chairman of the IACP Communications & Technology Committee and also serves as communications adviser to the Major Cities Police Chiefs Association, the National Sheriffs’ Association, Major County Sheriffs’ Association, and as an adviser to the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and various other agencies.