Radio everywhere

Arkansas wireless network connects first responders across the state

BEFORE SPRING 2006, Arkansas' first responders
couldn't use their radios to talk outside their
jurisdictions. However, when radio interoperability was named as
one culprit in the deaths of firefighters who rushed into the World
Trade Center in New York Sept. 11, 2001, Arkansas started a
multiphase plan to build a statewide network.


The result ' the Arkansas Wireless Information Network
(AWIN) ' incorporates old and new systems running at 700 MHz
to 800 MHz in an all-digital system that conforms to Project 25, a
standard of the Association of Public Safety Communication
Officials. Although most of the infrastructure and radios are from
Motorola, P25 supports radios from any vendor that meets the
standard.


'They were able to utilize a large percentage of the
existing infrastructure,' said Cindy Dunwody-York,
Motorola's area sales manager.


Each of the state's 75 counties had unique coverage
requirements based on public safety risks ' such as chemical
stockpiles ' that required Motorola to physically update
dozens of locations. 'We upgraded 48 existing sites, and we
added 23 new sites,' Dunwody-York said.


The system comprises 104 remote towers, each with radio
frequency equipment and microwave equipment. It is divided into two
zones, said Penny Rubow, AWIN's program director.


'The state police are kind of the anchor tenant,'
Rubow said, noting that 16 state and local agencies also use AWIN
for their daily operations.


AWIN could be considered more of a political than technical
achievement, a marvel of interagency cooperation. One key
ingredient is a council of county and municipal stakeholders from
whom Rubow's team expected clear requirements.


Giving users a seat at the table has kept the process running
smoothly.


'One of the most important things we did was bring in
users, and not just at the state level but the city and county
level,' said state police Capt. Dale Saffold, AWIN's
project director. 'That was probably the turning point in
turning around a project that was going down a rough
road.'


Listening in


Saffold said meetings around the state brought out the
naysayers, but the system sold itself once people tried it.


'We have 13,000 users,' Rubow said.


It took time to design the talk groups that specify which radios
can communicate with one another. Users tended to want small talk
groups, which could strain the capacity of each tower and hinder
interoperability.


'It could get political,' Rubow said. 'If the
sheriff 's office is there doing their business, they might
not want the fire department listening in on everything.'


Meanwhile, reviews have been good.


'The coolest thing about it is the voice quality,'
Rubow said. 'They were used to analog, and they go to digital
and they're just astounded.'


Coverage also has improved.


'They can talk on public radio in places we never
dreamed,' she said, noting that the improvement was
unexpected.


The bottom-line benefit is increased safety. Rubow cited a story
from March when flooding struck remote areas. Ordered to evacuate,
an elderly couple waited so long that when they tried to leave,
their truck was swept over a bridge by a swollen creek and became
stuck on a guardrail. Local rescue crews could not reach them. When
a sheriff happened by the scene, he used his AWIN radio to call for
outside help, and the couple was rescued.


'I have an elderly mom,' Rubow said. 'When I
think about that story, I think about her, and I realize we really
do help people.'



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