Gestalt principle on display in Maine
Shortly after deciding that something had to be done about his agency’s legacy analog VHF radio system that suffered from coverage gaps and was prone to system outages, Ray Bessette — a sergeant with the Maine State Police in charge of communications — came to another key determination: the problem was beyond the scope of what the state police could handle.
There were several reasons for this conclusion. Instinctively, Bessette knew next-generation communications networks would meld RF and IT technologies; he also knew that the state police didn’t have the IT chops to handle the future migration, but the state’s Office of Information Technology (OIT) did. It also had resources that the state police didn’t have, including the ability to consolidate multiple agencies onto one system, something that Bessette knew was a distinct possibility.
“We were concerned about giving up control,” said Bessette, who today is a major with the state police. “But we knew that this was much bigger than us, and we had to admit that we weren’t going to be able to get the job done. It was a defining moment.”
Taking on this project was an eye-opening effort for the OIT, according to Shawn Romanoski, the agency’s director of radio services. The coverage gaps experienced by the state police were numerous and, in many cases, widespread. Maine covers roughly 33,000 square miles, but its population largely is concentrated along its southern coast, so that’s where most of the state police’s radio infrastructure is located. In fact, the state police had no radio coverage at all across a huge swath of Maine, including its renowned North Woods region, which for decades has been advertised as the largest unbroken forest in the contiguous United States, Romanoski said. This area, which represents about one-third of Maine’s geography, was covered by the Department of Conservation and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
As bad as these coverage gaps were for the state police, worse were the outages experienced by the systems operated by these disparate agencies and others across the state, which over the course of a year “could be measured in weeks, not minutes,” according to Romanoski. The latter “is the expectation for a public-safety communications system,” he said.
The primary reason for the blight of system failures was that many of the 76 tower sites operated by these agencies only had one radio. “If that radio were to fail, for all intents and purposes, that site is completely offline,” Romanoski said. “When you’re dealing with VHF, that’s a large geographical area that goes without coverage. If you have a 200-foot tower on top of a 2,000-foot mountain, you’ve lost hundreds of square miles of radio coverage.”
Understanding the problem often is quite different than finding a solution. But, as Bessette suspected might happen, Romanoski quickly decided that the first step was to combine the resources of the state police, the aforementioned wildlife agencies and assorted other state agencies to create the backbone for a statewide system. “It wasn’t in the state’s best interests to have a large number of disparate systems,” he said.
The OIT last year awarded Harris Corp. a $52 million contract to build an IP-based, Project 25, digital VHF radio statewide system that would provide coverage over 95% of the state’s land mass. While $52 million might not seem like a lot of money to deploy a statewide radio system, “in Maine, that’s a lot of money,” Bessette said.
The system design involved an assessment of the 76 radio towers across the state that the state police, the wildlife agencies and other governmental entities were operating. Of these, 43 will be used for the statewide system. Some are being relocated to other locations — that work begins next month — to achieve a configuration of towers that are roughly 30 miles apart from each other and to place them in locations that will provide optimal signals.
This process provided a “gotcha” lesson for Romanoski. “We learned that you have to start early, early, early on land acquisition,” he said. “You have to be three years ahead of the curve.”
Work will begin in earnest next spring, and the project is scheduled for completion two years from now, Romanoski said. All of the towers that will be used for the system will be hardened and new towers will be built to the latest standards, he said.
“Previously, they were built on a residential-type structure,” Romanoski said. “The new towers will be built to TIA’s highest standard, which is its public-safety standard. They will able to withstand a three-second gust of the highest recorded wind over the last 50 years, and there’s a 15% margin of error above that. They’ll be pretty robust.”
Though the system is digital, it will contain a separate analog layer for those agencies that currently are unable to migrate to P25. “Our goal is to put in one conventional analog channel and then patch those agencies into the system,” Romanoski said. “It will be seamless and won’t require any user intervention. The interoperability gateway will be available 24/7.”
The fact that every radio on the system will be IP-addressable was a key selling point, Romanoski said.
“That’s very helpful when it comes to registering radios onto the system,” he said. “It also allows me to run a more secure system. For example, if a radio is lost, I can prevent the system from registering it. Or, if a radio is stuck in a certain mode, we can disable it. Finally, we’ll be able to pass encryption codes over the air; so, if there’s a major event happening, we can ensure that the communications will be secure. Today, there is very minimal secure encryption on our radios.”
The system will offer audio quality of 3.4 DAQ or higher. Redundancy has been designed into the system, with switches located in Augusta and Bangor, either of which is capable of running the entire system alone. While the system will be voice-centric at the outset, a carrier-class microwave backhaul system “with five-nines reliability” has been engineered into the design to accommodate high-bandwidth data applications in the future, Romanoski said.
- Read our earlier story, “Augusta, we have a problem,” for more on this story, including how the Maine State Police comes to terms with a legacy system prone to failure and massive coverage gaps.