The push to talk
Standards, emerging technologies get emergency crews closer to unified communications, but a lot of static remains<@VM>SIDEBAR | One vision of unified communications
- By Rutrell Yasin
- Aug 28, 2008
When Hurricane Katrina
wreaked havoc on the
Gulf Coast three years
ago, the storm left Louisiana in a unique
position to boost first responders' communications
'A lot of communications systems had
been destroyed here in the first responder
community,' said Col. Ronnie Johnson,
primary staff officer for communications
at the Louisiana Army National Guard.
Guard officials realized they needed an
interoperable broadband system that
could deliver high-speed voice and data
for daily operations and emergencies.
The Guard decided to deploy a cellular
system on wheels from Rivada Networks
that first responders can set up in an affected
area, re-establishing cell phone connectivity
on a prioritized basis during
emergencies, Johnson said. The Interoperable
Communications Extension System
(ICES) provides interoperable communications
among cell phones, personal digital
assistants, laptop PCs, landlines and
traditional Land Mobile Radio systems.
Using bridging technology, the Guard
can link the network with the Louisiana
State Police's 700 MHz voice radio system,
the system most commonly used by
first responders in the southern part of
the state, Johnson said.Communication breakdowns
Difficulties in communications between
first responders from different agencies
and jurisdictions during emergencies
have been repeatedly identified as a major
problem in disaster response efforts.
Every significant event, from the terrorist
attacks of September 2001 to hurricanes
Katrina and Rita in 2005, exposed
weaknesses in the ability of first responders
and emergency operations personnel
to communicate effectively.
However, each disaster produced lessons
officials can learn from, and technologies
emerge to improve communication,
such as Rivada's Code Division
Multiple Access'based cellular system.
Wireless data networks, IP-based mobile
communications devices and location-
based commercial services provide
opportunities to improve command and
control and situational awareness.
Hughes Systems, Motorola, Sprint Nextel,
PacStar and Verizon are a few of the
companies that are introducing new mobile and satellite communications systems that support interoperability standards
and sport multiband radio and bridging
technology to link disparate systems.
The technology exists to achieve interoperability,
Johnson said. 'The biggest
challenge we have always found with interoperability
is policies and procedures
more than any of this technology,' he said.
'The whole issue of emergency communications
interoperability has been a challenge
for some time. The least of the challenges
is technology,' agreed Bob Dix, vice
president of government affairs and critical
infrastructure protection at Juniper
'There are still cultural impediments,'
Dix said. 'Interoperability is still about
people, process and technology.'
Another major hurdle is a lack of funding,
industry experts say. Large metropolitan
areas have access to federal grants for
communications systems, but smaller local
jurisdictions might have other priorities or
economic considerations, often leaving
them without new, interoperable systems.
Achieving interoperability at the federal,
state and local levels will require a massive
replacement of radio communications
equipment with standards-based systems,
said Bruce Walker, vice president of homeland
security at Northrop Grumman.
'The likelihood that you will see a Big
Bang approach that replaces all this radio
technology so that standards become
something that is the baseline, you're talking
2015, 2018, 2020' for pervasive interoperability
at all levels of government,
Walker said.DHS' emergency plan
The Homeland Security Department
released in July its National Emergency
Communications Plan (NECP) that outlines
a comprehensive approach toward
'The Homeland Security Act of 2002,
amended in 2006, mandated the creation
of an overarching strategy to address
emergency communications shortfalls,'
the plan states.
'The purpose of the NECP is to promote
the ability of emergency response
providers and relevant government officials
to continue to communicate in the
event of natural disasters, acts of terrorism
and other man-made disasters, and to
ensure, accelerate and attain interoperable
emergency communications nationwide,'
according to the plan.
Before the plan was released, all U.S.
states and territories had developed
Statewide Communication Interoperability
Plans that identified near- and longterm
initiatives for improving communications
NECP offers guidance to first-responder
agencies but does not mandate specific
technologies. However, it does set goals
and timelines for establishing minimum
levels of interoperability.
By 2010, 90 percent of all high-risk
urban areas designated within the Urban
Areas Security Initiative (UASI) should
be able to demonstrate response-level
emergency communications within one
hour for routine events that involve multiple
jurisdictions and agencies. By 2011,
75 percent of non-UASI jurisdictions
should be able to demonstrate the same
thing, and by 2013, 75 percent of all jurisdictions
should be able to demonstrate response-
level emergency communications
within three hours of a significant event.
'These are ambitious targets, but I applaud
them for coming up with these' metrics,
said Richard Andrews, senior adviser
for homeland security at NC4, a provider of
incident management software that forges
information sharing among regional emergency
One challenge will be to define what response-
level communications really
means, Andrews said. 'There is not really a
common definition of what that means,' he
said. 'It has many different components.'
According to NECP: 'Response-level
emergency communication refers to the
capacity of individuals with primary operational
leadership responsibility to manage
resources and make timely decisions
during an incident involving multiple
agencies, without technical or procedural
NECP establishes seven objectives for
improving emergency communications.
Objective 4 addresses the area of standards
and emerging communications
Emerging technologies must be integrated
with current emergency communications
capabilities through standards
implementation, research and development,
and testing and evaluation, the
Accelerating the development of standards
for existing and emerging technologies
can address technology challenges
that hamper emergency communications,
NECP and industry experts agreed.
For instance, the Project 25 suite of
standards has been instrumental in forging
greater communications interoperability
between disparate digital Land Mobile Radios.
Project 25 ' a public/private effort toward
communications interoperability '
is the standard that DHS and all of the
major state and local public safety agencies
have adopted, said Bob Schassler,
Motorola's vice president of North America
government markets. Most grants and
federal money are now tied to implementing
P25 systems, he said.
'I think there are a lot of teeth in the
funding for standards,' Schassler said.
'We've deployed 150 different P25 networks
around the country.'
Grant guidance has been incorporated
into Safecom, a communications
program at DHS' Office for Interoperability
(OIC) that provides research, development,
testing and evaluation; guidance;
tools; and templates on communications-
related issues to local,
tribal, state and federal emergency
'The current grant guidance contains
recommendations for all new additional
voice systems to be compatible with the
P25 suite of standards and those, of
course, are intended to help manufacturers
produce equipment that is interoperable
and compatible,' said Amy Kudwa, a
'We do allow for purchases of equipment
that are not Project 25-compliant,
providing there are compelling reasons
for using other solutions,' Kudwa said.
Any movement toward greater interoperability
works best when it has strong
political leadership at the regional level.
That's been the case in Arkansas, with former
Gov. Mike Huckabee and current
Gov. Mike Beebe, and in Michigan, under
Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Schassler said.
Arkansas acts as the cellular network
operator for the public safety network, he
said. There is a standards-based network
throughout Arkansas, so if federal agencies
have to come in during a crisis or
other municipalities have to come together
with state agencies, they can all communicate
on a common technology.
Federal agencies can bring their P25-
compliant radios, which will operate in
Arkansas. 'In the past, you couldn't do
that because vendors had equipment with
proprietary protocols,' Schassler said.
Public/private partnerships also are critical
to developing standards and interoperability,
said Tonya Lin, operations manager
at Sprint Nextel's Emergency
Response Team. That team provides personnel
and wireless networking infrastructure
to back up government agencies
and private organizations during emergencies
and special events.
In the past, radios might have been interoperable
with what a public safety
agency had but not with other devices because
there was never a standard to establish
digital, analog, UHF and VHF communications.
bridges have come a long way,' Lin said.
'But having a standard will definitely assist
interoperability going forward.'
DHS' OIC is establishing a P25 Compliance
Assessment Program to test vendors'
equipment for compliance. NECP recommends
that the program be ready to start
testing 'equipment for compliance with
approved interfaces' in six months.
Other standards efforts are designed to
improve information-sharing capabilities
among disparate emergency response
The Emergency Data Exchange Language
(EDXL) includes the Common
Alerting Protocol (CAP); Distribution Element,
which is a standard message distribution
framework for data sharing
among emergency information systems;
Hospital Availability Exchange (HAVE);
Resource Messaging, which is designed to
create messages that allow emergency
personnel to rapidly share information on
incident and event management resources;
and the National Information
CAP is a general format for exchanging
all-hazard emergency alerts and public
warnings across all kinds of networks.
The protocol is a standard maintained
by the Organization for the
Advancement of Structured Information
AtHoc, which offers a notification
and alerting system, uses the
CAP specification in its technology
to communicate with other
emergency alerting systems and
public address systems, said Aviv
Siegel, chief technology officer at
the company, which counts the Air Force
among its government customers.
CAP is a necessary first step, but it is not
enough, he said. CAP 1.1 defines only the
information payload of a warning. For example,
the transport and routing aspects
' such as whether it runs via HTTP or
HTTPS ' have not been defined, Siegel
EDXL involves a mix of technical and
linguistic standards, Walker said. A responder
using HAVE at the scene of an
accident, for example, must talk to hospital
staff in the same language, using the
same terminology for an injury, he said.
The Justice Department is doing work
in this area, he said, making sure that accidents
are described the same way at all
law enforcement agencies, he said.Bread-crumb comm
Beyond standards, DHS' Science and
Technology Directorate and other organizations
are researching ways to expand
radio's multiband capabilities and define
a common connection for bridging devices that use voice over IP.
The National Institute of Standards and
Technology recently tested a possible solution
to the problem of radio dead spots that
can hamper emergency operations. On Aug.
5, NIST researchers tested a bread-crumb
communication system that uses smart
multihop relays ' the bread crumbs ' that
advise first responders when to place the
next device to extend the communications
NIST assembled the relays from commercial
microprocessors and other standard
hardware. The smarts in the relays come
from software NIST developed that monitors
the status of radio communication signals.
When a signal weakens, the software
alerts users so that they can lay down another
relay before walking out of range.
Nader Moayeri, manager of NIST's Wireless
Communication Technologies Group,
said approaches to establishing ad hoc wireless
networks in emergency situations typically
instruct first responders to lay down
bread-crumb relays at specific locations,
such as around every corner in corridors or
in every stairwell.
'Static rules do not take into account all the
environmental variables that affect signal
degradation, such as attenuation, fading and
interference,' Moayeri said. 'The communication
range in a commercial building corridor
is vastly different from that of a factory
floor, which is unlike a coal mine.'
The prototype, which was conducted with
two bread-crumb radio systems, one operating
at 900 MHz and the other at 2.4 GHz, is
a leap forward, Walker said.
'Imagine, if you will, an attack or incident
in one of the subway tunnels in Washington,
D.C.,' he said. 'You have to send a response
team into the tunnel to the rail car where the
'It is a great leap forward from that standpoint,'
Walker said. 'It eliminates the challenges
that surround structure issues, particularly
for below-ground operations.'More than radios
'Typically, when people talk about interoperability, people think radio. And those are
important,' said Robie Robinson, director
of security and emergency management
for Dallas County, Texas. However, there
are other ways to share pertinent information
before or during a disaster.
Part of the Dallas Urban Area Security
Initiative, Robinson's jurisdiction is
among 254 others throughout north central
Texas using NC4's Web-enabled
E Team incident management application
with geographic information system
tracking to link emergency operation centers
throughout the region.
'In the pre-incident management system
world, we relied on broadcast media
or radio weather spotters in range,'
Robinson said. Now, before an event, each
jurisdiction can report its information to
'In the case of thunderstorms and potential
tornadoes, if I know a [tornado] is
coming from the west, sure the TV will be
talking about it and the weather service
will be giving us reports, but it is interesting
to see an update from jurisdictions to
my west to say, 'We're responding to these
calls and we have this equipment committed,'' he said.
If a jurisdiction starts making requests
for additional resources, other jurisdictions
can see that. As a storm approaches,
they can see how the public safety picture
is progressing in real time, he added.
'It lets us know about resource allocations
being made and when jurisdictions
down the line are impacted,' Robinson
said. 'We know which direction to look
for assistance from them' or at what point
they need to call the state and ask for assistance.
Later, the information can be assembled
into a larger report.
The focus on wireless and radio communications
is important, agreed Cristin
Goodwin, senior attorney at Microsoft's
Trustworthy Computing initiative, but
there also needs to be coordination between
information technology and communications,
especially with tools that
users now have.
For example, with Virtual Earth you can
see layouts of buildings online before you
go into them, she said. How does that
technology fit into emergency management?
For one, you can map a city's emergency
requirements on top of that application,
'We need to be careful when talking
about interoperability that we don't
talk too much about communications
for emergency response and don't
think about how to harness other IT,' she
said.Inglewood, Calif., looks to bridge the gaps among emergency teams.
MIKE FALKOW, acting city administrator for Inglewood, Calif.,
has a vision for interoperable emergency communications that could
light up his region of southern California. Inglewood is about 20
minutes from Los Angeles International Airport and sits in the
middle of earthquake country.
During the past three years, city officials have been focused on
emergency preparedness, readying Inglewood for a major earthquake,
airplane crashes, spills of toxic wastes, and other disasters or
Officials created a division for public safety systems that
would oversee implementation of technologies such as computer-aided
dispatch and records management, mobile data computers,
telecommunications, and radio.
“One place I knew we were desperate was the area of mobile
telecommunications,” said Falkow, who is also the
city’s information technology director. “We learned
from [hurricanes] Katrina and Rita that if something bad goes down,
guess what? The whole telecom is going to go down. If we have [a
major earthquake] down here or a plane goes down, we could lose a
lot of cell sites.”
Police officers live by their radios, Falkow said. He wanted to
give the police department military-grade telecom technology
— a mobile system with satellite phone communications and
Internet connectivity that could be quickly deployed.
“I wanted to stand up a device, point it to the southern
sky and 45 minutes to an hour later get cellular communications if
I wanted to call the White House or other agencies,” Falkow
Falkow bought the PacStar 5500 deployable network that connects
users with phones, laptop PCs, IP-based devices, and wired and
wireless systems — all supported with advanced security.
IT officials realized that the satellite dish was too large. They
wanted something more mobile. Falkow had limited funds but was able
to pay for new equipment through some asset forfeiture money from
the police department. He went back to PacStar to see if the city
could get a mobile trailer that had a generator and a
self-acquiring satellite dish. He’s in the process of
finalizing that purchase. Public safety officials will be able to
load everything in a trailer, haul it in back of a command van, go
to a city park or other area and create a mobile emergency
“I can plug analog phones directly into my PacStar device
and create a 911 center,” Falkow said. “I can have the
cell phones and notebook with wireless network.”
Falkow said he wants to bring in a Quantar bay station and
another device to bridge the PacStar with the Motorola radio
system. “If I have all three, I have police officers and the
first responders, all in communications with one another, taking
commands from an incident manager,” he said.
The next stage would involve migrating the computer
aided-dispatch system off a 25-year-old IBM mainframe to a
Windows-based server environment.
The PacStar device is also a server, he said. Other devices can
plug into it because it has a router and switch. After the dispatch
system is on a server, Falkow could make a replica, put it on a
first responder’s vehicle and plug it into the PacStar
“It would be as though the dispatch center down in our
sub-basement is fully operational,” Falkow said.
Falkow is working with his representative in the California
State Assembly, who is a former Inglewood City Council member, to
extend the system to other municipalities in that state’s