Getting first responders on the same wavelength

Standards incompatibility has vexed cross-agency voice, data and radio

Other stories in this report focus on cross-agency homeland security technology standards in border technology, identity management and credential programs, fusion centers and the multibillion-dollar Integrated Wireless Network program to build a nationwide law enforcement radio network for voice and data.

In each area, the potential for efficiencies and mission improvements from common technology standards force federal information technology manages to make thorny choices involving missing standards, immature standards and the relative merits of settling on one or several systems to deal with specific problems.

The federal government is pushing cross-agency standards for radio communications on two tracks: the Integrated Wireless Network and Project 25.

Sylvana Rega

Natural and man-made disasters always cast emergency crews and systems into sharp relief, and it's no different for communications standards. Cross-agency homeland security technologies ' or the lack of them ' have a big impact when law enforcement and first-responder agencies from different jurisdictions try to communicate.

The lack of interoperable radio systems contributed to confusion and mismanagement after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, the attack on the World Trade Center and the Gulf Coast's devastation during the 2005 hurricane season.

The federal government is pushing cross-agency standards for law enforcement and first-responder radio communications on two tracks: the Integrated Wireless Network and Project 25.

Radio active

IWN ' an ambitious, multibillion-dollar, 15-year program ' is set to build a nationwide interoperable voice and data radio network intended primarily for federal law enforcement agencies.

The technology standard that will drive future development of IWN and the rest of the voice and data radio infrastructure is the Internet Protocol, both Version 4 and the emerging Version 6, according to specialists in the interoperable radio field.

The transition between those two Internet protocols itself poses a challenge for public safety agencies as they adopt progressively advanced broadband systems for use by officers in squad cars, on foot patrol and in command centers.

In the meantime, thousands of state and local agencies will continue to communicate via a m'lange of radio equipment, a lot of which dates back decades and relies on incompatible proprietary standards.

The Homeland Security Department's Project 25 is working to improve performance of the existing law enforcement radio infrastructure to help state and local agencies weave together their radio communications.

The project promotes the use of gateway technology to link radio networks that use different frequencies and standards. Project 25 also fosters governance pacts in regional zones that broker spectrum and transmission priorities among agencies.
The DHS project develops technology standards, guidance for state and local officials, and telecommunications operational models.

While homeland security employees are on duty, 'they have their guns, their [bulletproof] vests, their partners and their radios, and that's what they rely on,' said Michael Duffy, deputy chief information officer for the Justice Department's e-government services.

Duffy's division is the lead agency for IWN, which also counts DHS and the Treasury Department as primary cross-agency partners. IWN concluded a lengthy down-select and acquisition process this spring by awarding the prime contract to a team led by General Dynamics.

Underpinning both IWN and Project 25 are the technology and standards needed to negotiate the Byzantine maze of proprietary radio systems used for decades by public safety agencies in the United States.

Historically, these closed systems have worked only within the issuing agency, preventing communications between nearby localities or among local, state and federal jurisdictions. Incompatible standards and frequencies also have foiled communications among different agencies ' such as police and firefighters ' within a single jurisdiction.

Project 25 engages many thousands of state and local public safety agencies in the task of building interoperable networks within their regions, DHS officials said.
Project 25's common standard for public safety telecommunications will help state and local agencies achieve interoperability by providing a framework for the radio systems they purchase and assuring that the manufacturers certify their compatibility with other standard gear.

While technology and standards are the first essential step toward interoperability, there's usually much more involved, say DHS officials working on Project 25.

'A lot of people think it's just a technology problem, but it's really more complicated,' said Tony Frater, deputy director of interoperability and compatibility in DHS' science and technology division, where all Project 25 work is done.

Going local

Project 25's governance phase focuses on four areas: governance principles, standard operating procedures, training and exercise programs, and usage policies.
Tom Badders, business development director of Telos' Xacta Secure Networks Group, predicted that law enforcement broadband communications standards will develop partly as a result of spectrum allocation changes by the Federal Communications Commission.

The increased bandwidth needs of the systems complying with the interoperable standards have spurred development of end-user units that comprise two types of radios, according to Badders.

'They will be primarily using [the recently allocated] 4.9 GHz spectrum for backhaul [of signals from end users] and then putting together a dual radio solution, so in single node you can have broadband backhaul capability and the second radio for client connectivity,' he said.

As the new, interoperable systems roll out, their technology standards will account for the a migration from IPv4 to IPv6, Badders said.

Badders said, however, that the current state of transition in law enforcement radio standards poses a renewed risk of proprietary standards emerging. 'The problem I have is someone like [a major integrator] rolling out a new standard. They will want to try to drive something of their own.'

As for DHS' interoperability standard performance, Badders continued, they are behind the power curve. They need something running now, and the technology is out there to do it. The question is how to deploy it and how to have a smart migration plan.'

New public safety and first-responder radio networks will use IPv6 from the start, he said.

But even though cross-agency homeland security standards will help solve radio interoperability problems, they pose their own problems, Badders said. 'Standards definitely slow things down, the way standards are today, especially in wireless local-area networks and broadband communications.'

Deputy News Editor Wilson P. Dizard III contributed to this story

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