A communications network is a communications network.
That’s a key rationalization used by government officials when they decide to put public-safety radio networks under the supervision of those who possess an information-technology background, rather than a radio-frequency one.
While some entities make such a move in an attempt to save money, there’s some technological justification for the strategy as well. After all, public-safety communications has become increasingly dependent on Internet Protocol (IP) technologies; indeed, enterprise and public-safety data networks both use IP-based systems to backhaul RF traffic. Many believe this convergence is the wave of the future.
However, there are some important differences between the public-safety-communications and enterprise-IT arenas today, which can create issues when the two entities are combined in a single department.
“One of my concerns is that the two worlds don’t understand each other that well, particularly that the IT world doesn’t understand the requirements for public-safety communications — the issues of coverage, reliability and sustainability,” said John Powell, chairman of the National Public-Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) interoperability committee.
“Certainly, you can look around the country and see places where [convergence] is working right. But you can also look around the country and see places where it’s a total fiasco.”
Regardless, RF and IT groups are being combined on organizational charts throughout the country with increasing frequency. Occasionally, someone from the RF unit is chosen to head the merged organization, but the IT leader becoming the supervisor who oversees public-safety communications is a much more common occurrence.
Of the two, the later circumstance arguably is the more challenging. In an era when basic understanding of IT networks and computing is part of everyday life — many people have small computer networks in their homes and training and education materials are readily available online and in books — the ability for an RF person to learn the language of the IT world can be challenging but is certainly doable, Powell said.
Conversely, for those coming from an enterprise IT background, dealing with a public-safety land-mobile-radio (LMR) system can be quite an abrupt change, beginning with the demands for round-the-clock availability, said Harlin McEwen, chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police technology committee.
“They don’t understand that you can’t take [a public-safety network] down for maintenance and so on,” he said. “There has to be redundancy there that keeps that running all the time, because mission critical is 24 hours per day. It’s not like a business, where you can shut things down in the middle of the night — when there’s nobody in the office — and it doesn’t make any difference.”
Powell said this is a big adjustment for many from the IT side, noting an example of public-safety radio coverage being lost when an integrated IT network used for backhaul was taken down for maintenance. But he added that while some such negative incidents have occurred, most have been remedied quickly.
A more common problem occurs when public-safety officials believe their communications system is not receiving the appropriate prioritization within the larger budgeting and strategy plans, said Charles Brennan, deputy secretary of the state of Pennsylvania’s public-safety radio service. Brennan noted that it was difficult to build a statewide public-safety radio system without having the autonomy and separate budget to take necessary actions quickly when issues arise — something he believes was a problem for the state of New York’s effort to build a similar system.
“We used to be under the CIO here, and we broke out,” Brennan said. “If you look at the New York infrastructure, they’re buried pretty low — that radio project [was] really pretty low on the totem pole in New York. I’m not. I’m really two steps from the governor here. I’m a deputy secretary, and my boss sits in the governor’s cabinet. … So that has moved the radio project into a much higher profile in the government here. We actually told New York, ‘You’re too low on the totem pole.'”
Some note that there is a natural inclination for those from the RF side of the house to worry about job security when IT supervision of a public-safety radio system is put in place. But Tom Sorley, chairman of NPSTC’s technology committee, said RF concerns related to IT supervision aren’t as much about job security as effectiveness, especially when there is a push within the organization to transition to a broadband architecture that will meet future requirements. Such efforts can be perceived as neglecting the mission-critical communications needs of the present.
“I don’t see it as a lot of people being worried about their jobs,” he said. “I see it more as people saying, ‘Look, you’re talking about pie-in-the-sky stuff, and I’m down here trying to deal with reality.’ I think it’s more than people worrying about their turf.”
Santa Cruz County, Ariz., looked at providing mission-critical voice over broadband, but the price tag was too high, said Raul Mavis, the county’s IT director. The county has installed some broadband capabilities that eventually will let in-vehicle laptops access CAD information, but he does not plan on such offerings being mission-critical for many years, if ever, he said.
“I keep telling [public-safety officials], ‘We’re going to do this [broadband project] but no matter what, your radio is still your primary method, because that’s going to work. It’s been designed for that kind of ruggedness,'” he said. “I don’t trust [the broadband system] at this point yet, although that may sound strange coming from an IT guy.”
Powell opined that IP-based systems can be designed to meet mission-critical standards, but they tend to be much more expensive than LMR solutions with similar coverage.
Indeed, the routing capabilities and redundancies of IP — a protocol created by the defense department to remove single points of failure — are inherently ideal for mission-critical applications, as the military has proved, said Morgan Wright, Cisco Systems’ global industry solutions manager for public safety and homeland security.
“Quite frankly, they’re blowing terrorists up over an IP network,” Wright said. “And there’s nothing more mission critical than putting bombs and bullets on targets.”
Learn the hard way
Mavis discovered first-hand why most experts agree that it is much easier for an RF person to learn the language of the IT world than it is for an IT person to transition to RF. He said he still is in “learning-curve status” despite having the advantage of an RF background while serving in the military.
In the IT world, week-long “boot camps” allow those interested in the field to earn certification in specific subject areas, Mavis said, adding that he always looks for LMR-related books and has registered for an online course to learn more about public-safety-communications. But he would prefer a more standardized method to further his continuing education.
“Unfortunately, one of things I’ve discovered is that there is no — or minimal — training for the LMR side,” he said. “The knowledge rests with the people who have been out there doing it. And one thing I’ve noticed is that they’re not very willing to share it [LMR knowledge] with you.”
To help close the knowledge gap, Mavis speaks often with vendors, who are willing to offer advice but understandably also are biased in favor of their own products. He also has established relationships with officials within the state department of public safety, but many of his questions to them are met with one-word answers.
“I understand RF; it’s the components I have a problem with,” Mavis said. “It’s basic stuff, like when Motorola says, ‘Our radios can do this thing that the other guys’ stuff can’t.’ Then somebody like Tait says, ‘Oh no, we do the same thing.’ Now, you’re stuck in the middle trying to decide who’s right and who’s wrong, and there’s not much out there to help you decide.”
Mavis would like to see organizations like APCO and NENA make standardized training more readily available for those looking to enter the LMR sector. Meanwhile, he treats LMR shelters “as if it’s a rattlesnake — I’ll look at it, but I won’t touch it,” leaving him in the unenviable position of depending on vendors “for every single thing we do” to the county’s VHF public-safety network.
“If we need to program a radio, give it to the vendor. If we need to hook up an antenna, give it to the vendor. If we need to do this, give it to the vendor,” Mavis said. “I don’t begrudge anyone making a dollar, but I’d rather have them make a dollar on a big project than on the day-to-day items.”
Regardless of the difficulties, the melding of RF and IT appears to be inevitable from a technological standpoint, Sorley said.
“I see all kinds of different forces that are going to keep pushing this convergence, and I don’t see how we’re not going to get there,” Sorley said. “But it’s going to take a while.”
Cisco’s Wright agreed, noting that the debate between the RF and IT sectors in public-safety communications parallels another transformation that has resulted in voice-over-IP gaining a foothold in the commercial arena.
“This is the same conversation we had about 10 years ago between the telecom guys and the network guys,” he said. “This is the same behavior, and the same things are being said, and I think the same thing that happened to telecom and [the] network is going to happen between RF and IT. It’s simply a matter of numbers. How many people are going to college to learn RF, as opposed to IT, computer systems and information systems?”
Powell acknowledged the numbers gap, noting that RF is “not as interesting to most people as the IT side,” which is making it tougher to find RF technicians than in the past. As a result, there is considerable motivation for entities to resolve any RF/IT conflicts that may emerge.
Powell said he believes entities eventually will benefit from the technological convergence of the two sectors. For instance, broadband technology is notably more expensive, he said, because additional sites are needed to provide coverage that is similar to that provided by public-safety LMR systems. While this price tag may be too much for an individual public-safety entity such as a police department, it may be within the budget for a larger organization, such as a city or state government.
With this in mind, Powell said he believes it would be logical for these organizations to establish enterprise-wide systems that could be built to mission-critical standards. Not only would an entire enterprise be in a better position to afford the hardening of the system, there would be a “side benefit” from a capacity standpoint, he said.
“You can never predict when fire is going to need the system, because fires are generally random. But you know that law enforcement typically needs capacity on nights and weekends, and that’s when the public-works people typically aren’t on the system,” Powell said. “So, by building an enterprise-wide system, you have added capacity, because you’re allowing for everyone’s load.”