Rescue squad interoperable communications

Ultimate public safety network is far off, but there are comm options

The Holy Grail of public safety communications is a single nationwide broadband network that will allow seamless roaming and communication between agencies. While first responders are waiting for this, commercial technologies are emerging to provide interoperable communications on a local, regional or national scale.

Many observers believe that building out the single dedicated public safety network envisioned by the federal First Responders Network Authority is impractical on a $7 billion budget. And if accomplished it would provide a backbone, not local infrastructure. For the foreseeable future, first responders and providers of critical infrastructure and services will be knitted together by a patchwork of solutions.

Cisco offers a platform called the IP Interoperability and Collaboration System, which is an Internet gateway for radio systems with a console for connecting talk groups during an incident. The most recent release, IPICS 4.6, expected to be available this spring, adds several interface standards to the system for better support of the Project 25 standard for interoperable radio communications.

The Console Sub-System Interface is an IP gateway that provides an interface between a dispatch console and a repeater site. The Digital Fixed Station Interface is an IP gateway interfacing a repeater or base station and the console subsystem. IPICS allows any voice over IP endpoint to connect with a radio system, letting end users with different devices within a department communicate with each other and with users in other departments. Support of P25 in IPICS enhances that ability.

P25 is a standard for voice radio, and voice still is king in public safety communications, said Dan O’Malley, senior product manager for Cisco’s physical security business unit. But demand for multimedia communications is growing. A system offered by Mutualink also uses IP to link traditional radio systems as well as video and data.

Mutualink’s Interoperable Response and Preparedness Platform (IRAPP) can link system users around the country in secure talk groups. It avoids using a central server, which many agencies are reluctant to rely on, said Mutualink president Colin McWay. “We came up with a way to push the intelligence and security to the edge to allow users to retain control of the communication,” he said.

IRAPP provides peer-to-peer connectivity using IP gateways on traditional radio systems. Once the incoming radio signal is converted to IP, it can be routed to other gateways, where the packets are converted again to the proper radio or telephony format. A VPN interconnect service to a Mutualink point of presence is available, but most customers use a commercial Internet provider. Connections from the end user to the gateway can be made through a pre-defined mutual aid channel. The inter-agency connection usually is handled by a dispatcher who uses a terminal to link channels through an “incident box” established for specific events. Agencies with gateways participating in that incident are able to create links with each other on the fly, without prior coordination.

Mutualink recently has been demonstrating its ability to operate over LTE networks, which is the chosen technology for the FirstNet nationwide network. “Mutualink’s existing system will work seamlessly with FirstNet,” said Mark Hatten, the company’s chairman.

Public safety agencies also are reaching out to the public to gather intelligence via mobile devices. Kentucky’s Office of Homeland Security has its own mobile app for reporting suspicious activity.

“It’s part of our retooling of our Eyes on Kentucky program in 2010,” said Mary Halmhuber, the office’s CIO and acting director of the Intelligence Fusion Center, a hub for gathering, analyzing and sharing data. “We had a tip line and a website, but with our younger generation going mobile we thought that we had to broaden our scope.”

“We helped them develop a Web app,” said Lee Tompkins, general manager of Kentucky’s Web portal.

The volume of tips to the fusion center is relatively low, but the move to a mobile platform apparently was the right one. “We’ve received about 60 tips since we started the website, and about 160 through the mobile app,” Halmhuber said.

The app currently is for iPhones, but an Android version is being considered. Not only are people more likely to use the mobile app than a website, the app also has increased functionality, including the ability to pinpoint locations of reports with GPS signals and to include photos. The small screen size can also make a virtue of necessity by forcing users to be concise.

“The app has to collect the right information,” and not encourage users to run on, Tompkins said. “So you don’t have a giant text column so people can give their life story.”

Submissions from the website and the app are routed to the fusion center’s back end, where it is evaluated by an automated system and then passed on to human analysts if necessary. Tips that prove to be unimportant are purged after a year.

Halmhuber said the success of the system is not measured by the number of tips received or the percentage of them that pan out. “We have to look at what we would be missing if we didn’t get them,” she said.

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