Better comm on the line

Two initiatives show two ways to eliminate stovepipes and get first responders on the radio

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Talk, talk

Fox Photos/Chester Hawkins

The need for better communication among emergency responders was one of the critical requirements identified in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, and has been reaffirmed in nearly every disaster response since.

The nation's 50,000 federal, state and local law enforcement, fire department and emergency medical agencies have built separate communications systems over the past century, with little if any thought given to interoperability. The challenge of tying these legacy stovepipes into common communications channels has proved daunting, but some areas of progress are beginning to emerge.

Two programs in different parts of the country are taking different approaches in their quest for interoperability. The Justice Department is building a nationwide network from the ground up, called the Integrated Wireless Network. IWN will serve agencies in DOJ and the Transportation and Homeland Security departments. And in Texas, a coalition of federal, state and local governments are using an overlay protocol to integrate legacy networks used by agencies in and around the Dallas Love Field Airport.

With both initiatives, program managers are finding a variety of technologies and standards to help bridge disparate systems.

IWN is an ambitious undertaking, one that will connect federal agencies across the country. When fully deployed, the network is expected to serve more than 80,000 federal users within the three departments, and will be available to other federal agencies as well as state and local governments that want to connect to it. It will require an estimated 2,500 radio sites to provide the desired coverage in major metro areas, along major highways, along borders and ports of entry, and on Indian lands.

It has been a long time in coming. The program is a successor to a number of department-specific programs in Justice and Treasury. The partnership began in 2001, and Homeland Security was added when the Customs and Immigration and Naturalization services moved to the new department in 2003.

Pilot network

The groundwork for IWN has been laid in a pilot network now serving federal agencies in the Seattle area. Operational since 2004, this testbed is a VHF trunked land mobile radio network using the Project 25 standards for interoperability. It initially covered the state of Washington west of the Cascade Range, from the Canadian border to Oregon.

'We're expanding it into the rest of Washington and down the I-5 corridor into the western third of Oregon,' said Michael Duffy, DOJ deputy CIO for e-government. 'I don't know if I'd call it a pilot anymore.'

The full rollout of IWN already is well behind schedule though, with design contract awards originally set for last year. Officials have complained of inadequate funding as money has been diverted for other priorities.

A 2002 engineering study estimated the cost of a full nationwide wireless system for federal law enforcement at about $3 billion, which has since been whittled down to $2.6 billion. Congress is dribbling out funds a bit at a time. DOJ and DHS will pay for infrastructure development and operation, and each agency will pay for its own endpoint equipment.

It entered the final phase of the acquisition process in June with the award of development contracts to teams headed by General Dynamics C4 Systems of Scottsdale, Ariz., and Lockheed Martin Integrated Systems Solutions of Gaithersburg, Md. Each team will design a network meeting IWN requirements for the U.S. southern border region, and DOJ will select a winner.

The department is not releasing time requirements for delivery of final designs or for implementing the network.

'It will be a multiyear phased effort,' Duffy said.

The government does not specify the technology to be used in IWN and does not require any particular protocols.

'Industry should develop proposals that it believes best meet the government's functional requirements,' the program told bidders.

But the program's request for proposals acknowledged that the Telecommunications Industry Association's Project 25 standard 'is the only technical solution known today to meet all operational-based user requirements.'

Project 25 is a suite of over-the-air standards for interoperable digital radio that lets analog and digital radios communicate with each other. The goal of the standard is for any manufacturer's P25-compliant radio to be able to communicate on any P25 network.

But the ability for radios to communicate on any P25 network is only half of the equation. Another standard, the Inter Sub-System Interface standard, will enable connections between different P25 networks.

"Networks are not generally interconnected,' said Paul May, business development manager for M/A-Com Inc. of Orlando, Fla. 'If they are from two different vendors, there is little or no chance that they would work together.'

M/A-Com, one of the suppliers for handsets for the Seattle network and a member of the General Dynamics team for the IWN development process, recently announced a software upgrade to make its network switching servers compliant with ISSI. May said the standard is part of the migration from circuit-switched radio communications to IP-packet-switched technology.

'On the network side, radio is beginning to look like LAN and WAN technology,' he said.

Because IWN is a single network, ISSI will not be integral to the project. But the standard could help enable the connection to IWN by state and local governments with P25 networks of their own.

Motorola Inc. of Schaumburg, Ill., another major supplier of P25-compliant radio systems, was awarded the $18.5 million prime contract for the IWN pilot in Seattle in 2002. Components for the network are provided by West Electronics Inc. of Poplar, Mont., under a contract with a $20 million ceiling.

The Western Washington region covered by the network is a challenging area in which to work. Remote sites, rugged terrain, inclement weather and geographical diversity complicate the placement of radio sites. The variety of local and state jurisdictions and the nearby Canadian border make bandwidth management and zoning for the sites difficult. These difficulties are one of the reasons the area was chosen to prove the technology, Duffy said. If a workable network could be fielded under those conditions, it should be possible just about anywhere.

Challenging medium

'Radio is somewhat unpredictable, and, from a regulatory point of view, it's very challenging,' Duffy said. 'Radio spectrum is scarce. We had to do some horse trading with other agencies and we had to work with the government of Canada.'

But the results have been worth the effort, he said. 'We reduced the amount of RF spectrum we are using by 60 percent' by consolidating agencies on a single network. The number of sites needed to cover the geographic footprint for all agencies was reduced from 45 to 18. 'For the most part, things worked the way we expected them to.'

The UHF and VHF bands that are most appropriate for the technical requirements in that area do not lend themselves to high data rates. Duffy said the majority of the final IWN network probably will be VHF.

The network is primarily used for voice, with some low-speed data.

'You can push through things like text messages,' but not video or large files, Duffy said.

One of the project drivers for IWN is the need to replace outdated systems, especially those that are poor at interoperability and can't keep up with the heavy bandwidth needs. The Love Field project, on the other hand, has to make do with the legacy communications systems.

'It ties together all of our assets on one medium in the case of emergency,' said Ron Chandler, Transportation Security Administration chief engineer in Dallas.

The secret sauce bringing the separate networks together is the Connection Optimizing Cryptographic Overlay protocol, implemented in a suite of access points, gateways and servers from CoCo Communications Corp. of Seattle. First responders will continue using their own radio handsets, notebook PCs, personal digital assistants and other devices, but will be able to communicate with each other in the event of an emergency.

'The network and the software translates it into one connective link,' Chandler said. 'That's the biggest bang.'

The overlay protocol being used in the Love Field project is complementary to the P25 technology that probably will be deployed in IWN, said Peter Erickson, vice president of business development for CoCo Communications.

'IWN is focused on building some new infrastructure on a VHF network,' Erickson said. 'And infrastructure is good. The COCO protocol lets you take advantage of any infrastructure you have.'

Common interface

The protocol rides on top of disparate communications systems to give them a common interface. It establishes a link between systems, negotiating an encoding method and a key exchange to enable secure communications with quality of service.

This allows time-sensitive applications such as voice and video as well as data to run on the networks. The protocol supports Ethernet, WiFi, satellite, Cellular Digital Packet Data, IP, General Packet Radio Service, Code Division Multiple Access and Global System for Mobile Communications protocols.

When it is needed, 'talk groups' can be set up through a conference server to connect individuals point-to-point, or to create ad hoc networks of users on different nets. These devices create a mobile mesh network on demand, with each endpoint routing packets to other endpoints as it joins the network. This type of network is limited only by the bandwidth consumed by multiple hops back to a node that is backhauled to a fixed network.

'Ten years ago we wouldn't have been able to effectively do this,' said Jeff Meyer, CoCo director of development. But with the increased computing capability of today's endpoint devices, the footprint needed for encryption, processing and routing on each device is relatively small.

The network was funded by a DHS grant of $979,100 in 2005. CoCo is operating it as a subscription service for the city of Dallas. Current subscribers are the city's police, fire and aviation departments; the Texas departments of Public Safety and Health; and the federal Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; as well as Southwest Airlines.

Love Field was chosen for the network because it is big enough, but not too big, said TSA's Chandler.

'It's a pretty well-trafficked category 1 airport, but it's not so large that if something happens it will have a lot of impact,' he said.

The selection of the airport also benefited from the support of Texas legislators, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas).

Primary requirements for the system were that it be scalable and allow the use of legacy systems for intercommunications.

The system consists of 15 outside and 30 inside 802.11b WiFi access points that can provide up to 5 Mbps of bandwidth, nine radio gateways and two telephone gateways linked to the CoCo Conference Server.

Implementation began in the fall of 2005 and the network became operational in June. Groundwork for the system began with a series of desktop exercises conducted by CoCo with the participating agencies that were to be tied together, Chandler said.

'The first one we found a lot of bugs' in transmission quality, he said. 'At that point I was a little pessimistic that they could get it running to our satisfaction. But they rolled up their sleeves, and with the second one they had it.'
So far there have not been any emergencies requiring the use of the new networks, Chandler said.

'Right now it's just being maintained,' he said. Plans are under way for weekly drills and training. 'We see it as being a real advantage in the case of a catastrophic event.'

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