Interoperable radios, satellite systems bring agencies closer to unified communications

During natural or man-made disasters, communications among first responders, public safety officials and government agencies is crucial. Losing that ability can only mean chaos.


In this report:

Software tools give public safety agencies a common view during emergencies


The 2001 terrorist attacks and natural disasters during the past few years, such as Hurricane Katrina, brought that point home quite clearly.

Eight years after the 2001 terrorist  attacks, significant progress has been made toward improving public safety communications, but there is still a lot of ground to cover, government and industry officials agree.

Increased funding to state and local governments, advances in radio technology, and the release last year of the Homeland Security Department’s National Emergency Communications Plan — which outlines a strategy to improve public safety communications throughout the country — have contributed to more effective communications among various jurisdictions.

However, as former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said recently during a panel discussion on public safety communications interoperability in Washington, many jurisdictions differ on issues such as the use of gateways that connect current and emerging radio technology and governance processes that allow diverse groups within regions to communicate.

Moreover, officials must resolve the issue of turning over radio spectrum in the 700 MHz band to public safety and first responders, Chertoff said. The dedication of spectrum would eventually allow first responders to use a broader set of handheld devices that can transmit data, voice and video for greater situational awareness. That information would help first responders and commanders make more informed decisions.

A poor economic climate complicates matters because many state governments, strapped for cash, don’t have money to update and refresh aging equipment.

Despite the challenges, federal, state and local agencies are harnessing the power of technologies such as radio, satellite and crisis incident management software to move closer to unified communications.

Radio days ahead

Next month, DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate will move into the final pilot testing and evaluation stage of its Multi-Band Radio Project. Last year, the directorate awarded a contract to Thales Communications to develop a multiband radio that could be used to demonstrate how emergency responders communicate with partner agencies, regardless of the radio band they use.

Conventional radios only operate in a specific frequency band, preventing responders from communicating with other agencies and support units that operate in different radio frequencies. Multiband radios are comparable in size and weight to existing portable radios with similar features, but they vastly improve incident communications capabilities.

The Science and Technology Directorate selected 14 organizations to conduct minimum 30-day tests, designed to determine the effectiveness of the technology in areas of command and control or special operations with multiple entities. Some of those organizations include Amtrak, the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group, the Customs and Border Protection agency’s Detroit office, the Texas National Guard, the U.S. Marshal Service’s Northeast Region and the Washington, D.C., Metro Area Transit Authority Transit Police.

In addition, the Coast Guard is deploying a cross-banding switch in ports that allows partners, who operate on various radio frequencies, to communicate.

Meanwhile, several counties in Texas are working on a prototype project with Motorola and Sprint that uses cloud computing to bring together regions that operate radios with different frequencies into an integrated resource, said Steve Jennings, former chief information officer of Harris County, Texas, which manages the Texas Wide Area Radio Network.

“We were looking at how we could literally make a region bigger,” Jennings said.

The concept revolves around the use of Motorola’s Project 25-compliant Inter Subsystem Interface (ISSI) gateways, network IP-based devices that connect systems with different system IDs, user databases and radio frequency bands. P25 is a suite of standards for digital radios that allow agencies and emergency responders with equipment that adhere to the specifications to communicate.

Typically, an ISSI gateway is configured as part of the radio system network and is geographically tied to the place where it is deployed. But Motorola engineers have eliminated those restrictions by putting the ISSI gateway in a Motorola computing center in Schaumburg, Ill. Counties with radio systems that use different frequencies can connect their systems to a Sprint high-speed network that runs on Ethernet links to the ISSI gateway in Illinois.

Harris County, which uses 800 and 700 MHz radios, was the first to connect to the Texas project. It was followed by Parker County, which uses VHS frequency radios, and Austin, which has VHS and 700/800 MHz radios. Laredo, which operates at 800 MHz, and El Paso, using 800 and 700 MHz radios, also have joined the network.

“We all run at different levels. What ties us together is P25,” said Jennings, who said they would like to bring Louisiana into the cloud-based network. The project is still in the prototype stage, with Motorola and Sprint providing the network services at no charge.

Jennings said the cloud computing approach could serve as a model for other regions across the country. The next step is to push Motorola to provide access through a wireless, secure virtual private network tunnel, so users wouldn’t need to depend on a wired network infrastructure if it is destroyed or damaged during an incident. Harris County can switch the radio network to backup facilities, but some counties might not have that capability, Jennings said.

Additionally, Harris County recently deployed Motorola’s SmartX migration product, which lets users run the analog-based Motorola SmartZone radios and newer Astro 25 digital radios on the radio network. Users can gradually upgrade or replace older technology.

The Harris County region includes 12 surrounding counties, which support more than 260 separate agencies and 44,320 users who operate on a combined SmartZone and Astro 25 system, utilizing 43 sites.

Other communications vendors are delivering new technology that boost interoperable radio coverage. For instance, Harris' Unity family of multiband, software-defined radios provide full-spectrum communications for public safety agencies. The Unity XG-100 Full-Spectrum Multiband Radio covers all portable land mobile radio frequency bands in a single radio.

Last month, Cisco Systems launched Cisco Mobile Ready Net, an architecture and set of product enhancements designed for defense, homeland security, public safety and other organizations to communicate with no limitations on location. An important aspect of the solution is radio-aware routing, wherein routers can use radio feedback to monitor link status and find the best wireless paths through complex networks, Cisco officials said.

Satellites back up networks

In February, severe ice storms in Kentucky knocked out communications.

Emergency crews and first responders had conventional radio systems that worked because they were on backup generators powered by diesel fuel. However, when fuel ran out, work crews could not reach many of those generators because they were blocked by trees that had fallen because of the ice. Teams of workers had to cut their way through the fallen trees to clear paths to the generators, a labor-intensive task.

The only devices that worked for several days were satellite-based push-to-talk radios, said Drew Chandler, information technology and communications manager for the Kentucky Department for Public Health’s Preparedness Unit.

Four years ago, Kentucky received a grant from the Health and Human Services Department to implement a backup and redundant communications system among all hospitals and federally qualified health centers and clinics statewide. State officials chose SkyTerra Communications’ push-to-talk satellite phones.

Kentucky is a wide state from west to east, Chandler said. “We don’t have enough infrastructure to support a conventional radio system," he said. "And some of the terrain is so challenging, particularly in the eastern part of the state, where we have the Appalachian Mountains, that there aren’t even regional radio systems that we can piggyback on.” 

The amount of money the state received would not have covered the construction costs for a new infrastructure. So state health officials decided to use existing technology that fit into the budget.

The SkyTerra system is strictly for backup communications because the telephone portion of the system can be expensive. At $1.19 a minute plus taxes and fees, a 10-minute conversation would cost $15. The cost could be astronomical if everyone used the phone.

SkyTerra’s device is unique because it is both a telephone and a push-to-talk radio, such as a Nextel phone and walkie-talkie, Chandler said. “To my knowledge, even to this day, they are the only satellite company that offers that push-to-talk style radio feature," he said. "That was a big thing for us.”

The Kentucky Department for Public Health made an initial investment of about $3.5 millions in hardware and service for several years. The other option would have been to install VHS repeaters throughout the state. The National Guard Communications unit has almost 150 repeaters for mobile radio coverage. A tower would be needed with each repeater site. Each repeater costs about $10,000, and more hardware is needed. Chandler estimated that it would have cost $1.5 million just for hardware to develop a land system.

“With SkyTerra, we don’t have any infrastructure to support," Chandler said. "SkyTerra has one big repeater, and it’s in the sky.”

SkyTerra is working with Boeing and Qualcomm to launch two next-generation satellites that will provide enhanced functionality to users, said Matt Foosaner, vice president of government sales at SkyTerra.

SkyTerra devices attach to vehicles or buildings, not mobile devices, Foosaner said. The next-generation satellites built by Boeing and gateways being installed in the United States and Canada all have IP backbone architectures. They will enable use on a small handheld device, roughly the size of a BlackBerry, to provide telephone and push-to-talk capabilities, in addition to more broadband data capability.

Qualcomm is providing the next-generation chipset. The mobile devices will be able to work with a terrestrial land network. But if that is unavailable during an incident, users could switch to SkyTerra for voice services to continue operations, he said.

Pennsylvania’s satellite backup

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency is also using satellite for backup. Hughes Network Systems is the service provider.

Pennsylvania uses Hughes' satellite network, which has been in place for three years, for intergovernmental communications between Pennsylvania state agencies and counties at the command and control level if terrestrial communications are unavailable, said Kevin Campbell, acting supervisor for PEMA technical services. He added that the service is not available at the first responder incident level.

“We enhanced our existing satellite network from an older network to an IP network, and then when we did that, it allowed us to provide services to multiple agencies while maintaining our service costs,” Campbell said.

PEMA uses a Cisco IP backbone, which includes Cisco Unified Communications Manager and Cisco IP Interoperability and Collaboration System for radio interoperability. Cisco IPICS is an intelligent network-based system that integrates disparate push-to-talk radio systems with other voice, video and data networks.

PEMA has a satellite receiver and two mobile units that support UHS and VHS frequencies and the state’s 800 MHz PAStarNet, a statewide radio network that supports multiple agencies. “They have an interoperability platform, which is a little different from ours, but we connect their network and our network using IPICS,” he said.

The satellite network provides services for the Pennsylvania State Police; the Health, Military and Veterans Affairs, and Transportation departments; and counties’ emergency operations centers. The network also has a site at the National Weather Service at State College, Pa.

PEMA recently demonstrated the interoperability aspects of the satellite network along with Cisco IPICS during an exercise with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and a prison in West Virginia.

“We used the Cisco IPICS to backhaul across the satellite all the communications from the prison back into Pennsylvania so their operations center could manage the exercise from their location even though we were operating out of West Virginia,” Campbell said.

PEMA has only pushed voice and data, not video, across the satellite network. With Cisco Unified Communications Manager, PEMA can provide conference and announcement information to groups. For instance, in the event of an incident at a nuclear power plant, PEMA could broadcast information across the phones to all counties.

Although the network is meeting demands, future enhancements to the network are on hold at the moment because of the economy, Campbell said.

Meanwhile, earlier this year, Hughes launched the Inter-Government Crisis Network, a satellite-based solution designed for government agencies to communicate securely and reliably in preparing for and responding to an emergency. IGCN operates on the company’s SpaceWay 3 satellite system that provides onboard switching and routing for broadband connectivity.

Agencies that use the SpaceWay 3 network for backup capabilities can then work with Hughes to build predefined user groups, said Tony Bardo, Hughes' assistant vice president of government solutions.

“In the event of a crisis, if the network is down, you can invoke the capabilities of the Hughes VSAT Inter-Government Crisis Network so that these agencies, on a speed-dial basis, can set up videoconference calls with decision-makers to determine the next steps,” Bardo said. The network also supports voice and data, but the real killer application is probably the videoconferencing capability, he added.

Budgetary and cultural hurdles

Some of the hurdles to interoperable communications are independent of technology, said Brad Stoddard, director of the Michigan Public Safety Communications System.

With more than 231 towers and 48,000 radios covering an area of more than 58,000 square miles, MPSCS is the largest public safety communications system in North America. It's also one of the first and was implemented in stages during the past 12 years, Stoddard said.

But some local law enforcement and public safety agencies worry that if they share frequencies, other people can hear their conversations. On the contrary, with trunk radio technology, only specific groups can hear one another, Stoddard said. After people understand that, local public safety organizations are more willing to become a part of MPSCS.

In some ways, MPSCS is a victim of its own success, Stoddard said. It continues to serve the communications needs of public safety agencies: 53 percent of law enforcement and 41 percent of fire departments and emergency medical service personnel use the system. However, some IT and telecommunications systems in the network have reached their life span, and others are on the cusp.

In this economic climate, money for life cycle remediation is sparse, he said.

Many states share that problem. A lot of funding for equipment comes from federal grants, Harris County’s Jennings said. “Grants will start drying up, and that will have an impact on the longevity of equipment."

Budgeting for the maintenance and refreshing of systems is always a challenge even in better economic times, he added. More state and local agencies will need to increase the time between refreshing equipment from three to five years to four to six years, he said.

To address the problem of tight budgets, agencies and industry might need to adopt a new business model, Chertoff said during the panel discussion.

Agencies and industry should look at more migratory technology that connects older systems with emerging technology. This might also entail a business model in which organizations don’t buy technology and keep it until it is obsolete. Rather, users would pay for a service, and as equipment changes over time, they would swap it out and pay for use of the product rather than the product itself, Chertoff said.

Reader Comments

Tue, Nov 3, 2009 Greg Heifner USA

Interesting piece. ODN was missed (Orbital Data Net) and we cover 5 states with LMR backhaul via satellite for Motorola Astro 25 systems as well as satellite bridging designed for JPS ACU bridges. Most of these models described are pricey and those that want a state department of public safety to abandon their $10 million dollar radio network because some tower site T1's are down are missing the picture. Push to talk satellite radio isn't anymore useful that LEO satellite phones are. While they have their usefulness, restoring LMR pathways and keeping infrastructure operational is the most efficent and effective way to protect a state's communication infrastructure.

Thu, Sep 24, 2009 Bill C. San Diego

The article refers to VHS radios; really these should be VHF (Very High Frequency - 30-300 MHz). VHS is a video tape format.

Wed, Sep 16, 2009

First it is hard to believe an article that can't even get the bands right, they are VHF and UHF. Second it is distressing to see Former Sec. Chertoff advocate for a new business model. It has been hard to pay for new radios every 15 years and now we are expected to pay more, get less and roll over equipment every 4 years! HAH, this is not only a detriment to budgets but adds to planned failure on the part of the manufacturers. Good radios that could be manufactured to last for 25 years are obsolete only because new is better? I will continue to use my excellent 15 year old radio until I have to manditorily shut it off Dec 31, 2012. At that time I will hopefully have a replacement radio that functions on the fireground, can be used with gloves on, does NOT cost over $1000 and will be compatible with other radios in use at that time. I am not including my name because these thoughts are mine and not representative of the state agency I am employed by.

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