Police agencies start on long road toward shared radio systems

'Nine out of 10 police radios out there have the same brand name on them, but they don't communicate,' according to Jeff Logan, head of government relations for M/A-COM Inc. of Lowell, Mass.

The brand name on those nine radios is Motorola.

Chuck Jackson, director of systems planning for Motorola Inc. of Schaumburg, Ill., said the situation stems largely from the way the Federal Communications Commission has assigned frequencies over the past 70 years.

FCC gives nonadjacent bands to neighboring police and fire departments to prevent interference, and their analog radios cannot access multiple bands.

'Almost all police departments have some limited connectivity with their neighbors, however,' Jackson said. Some share mutual-aid channels and patching systems, 'but those have a very low capacity. They are not designed to handle large events.'

Potomac crash

Most cooperative communications systems grow out of some sort of catastrophe. Before the Washington-area sniper shootings last month, the area's defining catastrophe was the 1982 crash of Air Florida Flight 90 into the Potomac River, in which 74 people died.

Afterward, the Virginia counties of Fairfax and Arlington and the city of Alexandria linked up on an 800-MHz Motorola trunked digital system along with the District of Columbia fire department and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Authorized users can roam and communicate with each other much as they can on a cellular telephone system.

Montgomery County, Md., has installed, but hasn't yet officially cut over to, a similar trunked digital system. It was pressed into service after the Pentagon attack on Sept. 11, 2001, and again this year for the sniper task force (see accompanying story, this page).

Trunked systems work only when departments share the same vendor. Other approaches try to integrate existing multivendor systems. For example, M/A-COM in August introduced NetworkFirst, which connects legacy radio systems to an IP WAN. Voice gateways change audio to IP packets that can be routed over a regional or statewide network. The gateway supports up to 12 legacy radio channels, trunked talk groups or console positions.

The Association of Public Safety Communications Officials in 1993 developed the so-called Project 25 standard for interoperable digital radio in the 800-MHz band. Compliant products began to appear about three years ago but are not yet common.

Interoperability does not necessarily require choosing one technology over the other. Indiana and four surrounding states'Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois'have formed the Midwest Public Safety Communications Consortium to unify public-safety communications from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River and from the Canadian border to the Tennessee line. The group held its first meeting in October.

'It's unprecedented,' said Scott Smith, an executive assistant at Indiana's Integrated Public Safety Commission. 'There has never been that big an area coming together.'

Each of the five states already was planning to build a public safety network. 'We thought, why stop at the state line?' Smith said.

Budget delays

But the consortium cannot yet make things work together. The states use two different Motorola 800-MHz systems. The roadblocks to hooking the systems together are not primarily technical. 'There are some technical limitations,' Smith said, 'but not a lot.'

The real delays come from different budgets and priorities. Michigan has rolled out its system, Illinois is about a third of the way through and Ohio is about a quarter of the way.

Indiana has 959 fire departments and more than 600 police departments, and participation in its Astro system is voluntary, Smith said. The system proved itself when powerful tornadoes struck Johnson and Marion counties in September. For the first time, nine fire departments and four police departments were able to communicate.

'They were ungodly happy with it,' Smith said.

Project SAFECOM, an Office of Management and Budget e-government initiative, eventually could link more such wireless projects into a nationwide public safety internetwork. SAFECOM will encourage federal, state and local cooperation and provide funding for interoperable communications systems.

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