Tech decisions driving Michigan

Tech decisions driving Michigan's public safety expansion

Previous:  How Michigan set the pace for state public safety networking

In the last decade, the state of Michigan has achieved near blanket coverage of its Public Safety Communications System (MPSCS), a digital voice IP network of federal, state, tribal and private public safety agencies and police departments across the state.

Today, 1,460 agencies are knitted together via the network, an order of magnitude more than the 152 linked in 2002, according to  MPSCS director Bradley Stoddard, who attributes the growth to three primary factors: economies of scale, increased equipment interoperability and resiliency in the network.

As for economies of scale, the cost of joining the MPSCS network backbone is generally lower than what it would cost a local jurisdiction to acquire a system separately, according to Stoddard.

"We've seen gradually over the years that as systems came to end-of-life for local agencies they went through the comparison process of what it would be from a cost standpoint, from an interoperability standpoint, of building their own system in lieu of joining the MPSCS," said Stoddard. 

"In many of those cases, it was a hands-down decision to join." 

Interoperability pains

The benefits of interoperability of radio equipment are obvious.  When an event occurs that involves multiple jurisdictions or agencies, it's clearly important that responders be able to talk with each other.

Those advantages were enhanced significantly in 1989 by the launch of Project 25, a set of standards for networking digital radios. According to Stoddard, however, while Project 25 was an important step in making statewide coverage feasible, it was not fully sufficient to handle the boom in radio devices and wide-area networks.

"Vendors would sell us radios and say that they're ‘25’ capable, but they wouldn't work," Stoddard said. "They weren't interoperable.  So we had to develop our own process early on within the state to test radios.  We built our own standards process that we have subsequently shared with the 40 other states that constructed statewide systems."

The program has spurred adoption by jurisdictions because it has both ensured greater interoperability and helped drive down the cost of equipment. 

"Over the past handful of years, we've seen a greater number of radios come in from the vendor community that are Project 25 compatible," Stoddard said.  "We let communities that are trying to replace equipment know that there are multiple vendors that are available in that space.  More importantly it potentially drives prices of radios down because now vendors are competing for that business."

Stoddard acknowledges that there are still pockets in the state with incompatible equipment, but he expects those to largely disappear as the equipment reaches the end of its lifecycle and is replaced.

Reliability and resiliency

Another advantage of MPSCS that has convinced many communities and agencies to join is its greater reliability. 

"It is not uncommon for a T-1 circuit or copper-based circuits or even fiber-based circuits that are buried to somehow be cut," Stoddard said.  Accordingly, the state built its network using microwave transmitters on towers.  And, when commercial power goes down, generators on the towers kick in.  "The microwave backhaul [minimized] that risk of downtime in communications."

Beyond that, trunking of the system was designed to ensure ongoing local communications in the event of network interruptions.  "If one major zone, let's say an area of about 30 tower sites, were to lose connection to a neighboring zone, zone trunking kicks in," Stoddard said.  "So everyone who has a radio that is on within that zone will still be operating as if nothing occurred, though they wouldn't be able to talk to the adjoining zones.

Bringing in data and geospatial awareness

In 2008, when the Department of Homeland Security's SAFECOM program redefined interoperability to include not only voice but also data, Michigan was again already ahead of the pack. 

"We already had a mobile data client, as part of the integrated voice and data system we had in place across the state," Stoddard said.  What MPSCS didn't have, he said, was a way to integrate that data with its dispatching system.   

To address that issue, the state turned to its primary system vendor – Motorola – and brought in a computer-aided dispatch application, Motorola CAD.  Motorola CAD uses ESRI geographic data tools along with Microsoft SQL Server databases to tie incoming communications to dispatching centers.

The next piece of the puzzle Stoddard's team is tackling is to integrate asset management into the system.  "We are still working to finalize an automatic vehicle locator system that would be on the network statewide, so whether you're in an urban area or rural area, those dispatch centers would at least know where you are," Stoddard said. 

"What fire rig has the oxygen tank on it?  What law enforcement vehicle has the stop stick?  Now we can track which of our support vehicles has what, so when we're dispatching someone out in the middle of the night to respond we know who has the right equipment."

Currently, that data is manually entered into the CAD program.  But Stoddard is already looking farther down the road.  "You can clearly see where the future is going in utilizing [radio frequency ID], not only from implementing CAD but also from asset inventory aspect," he said.

Waiting for FirstNet

The other major step forward for MPSCS, said Stoddard, will be eventual integration of the network with FirstNet, the nationwide broadband network for emergency responders. The advantages of FirstNet are clear.  Even though Michigan’s system has voice coverage in most of the state, there are places – such as national parks and state parks – where voice and data coverage is not available. 

“That's where we see a partnership between the state and FirstNet,” Stoddard said. “FirstNet's data capabilities can augment our voice information out there.” He explained that FirstNet’s data capabilities could provide access to fingerprint or picture identification from the roadside, which could greatly help police improve public safety.

But Stoddard warned that there are significant challenges ahead for FirstNet. “There is already an understanding in the public safety community about how data can augment voice activity,” he said.  “The challenge is going to be in the application arena.”

Specifically, Stoddard cautioned it will be a challenge to ensure that applications written by vendors for different operating systems and devices work on the full range of devices connecting to FirstNet, including smartphones.

Another potential snag to adoption of FirstNet is cost. “If you build a network it doesn't necessarily mean everyone is going to come, nor does it mean that everyone can afford it,” Stoddard said. 

Noting that connecting smartphones to existing services cost between $60 and $100 a month, not counting the cost of the equipment itself, he said, FirstNet may be too expensive for some communities to take advantage of.  “Your monthly fee, your device cost – even if you drive both of those low, that still doesn't necessarily mean that the first responders can afford that technology.”

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