Interoperable radios: Perfect vs. the possible

An IP system linking disparate communications infrastructures might not be perfect, but it works, and that is good enough.

Bergen County, N.J., is using an IP bridge system from Mutualink to connect a variety of incompatible emergency responder radio and telephony networks, a system that proved effective in New Jersey’s most populous county during Hurricane Irene in 2011 and this year’s Superstorm Sandy, as well as in other events.

More info

How IP networks helped NJ crews meet Sandy head-on

Response teams in Bergen County, N.J., used interoperable IP connectivity to link a variety of radio systems during Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy. Read more.

When radios can’t connect, IP provides the bridge

Once data has been put on an IP network, disparate types of devices -- such as siloed first responder radios -- can be linked almost anywhere in the world. Read more.

On the plus side, the system lets departments that have different types of equipment communicate without replacing existing infrastructure or making high up-front investments.

“About $15,000 allows you to get in with Mutualink,” and join the conversation during an emergency, said Justin R. Lahullier, assistant chief in the East Rutherford Fire Department.

On the down side, end users have to go through a dispatcher or administrator to patch channels from one department’s gateway to another, which is not the most elegant solution. But it works, and that is good enough, Lahullier said.

The county had considered a new countywide radio system for fire departments to replace the home-grown systems at the various departments, letting them communicate easily with each other. “But the cost of bringing in municipalities is huge,” Lahullier said. It would cost about $1 million to re-do one department’s radio system.

Lahullier’s advice to other emergency departments searching for interoperable communications: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” he said, because a single radio system might be the ideal solution, but if you can’t afford it, it does you no good.

The Mutualink system lets agencies and departments opt in one gateway at a time, but it still requires coordination and cooperation to make it work, so up-front planning is necessary.

“Make sure the people you want to interoperate with are all on the same page,” he advised. “Have a good plan up front and get everyone’s buy-in.”

The county is not ending its efforts to improve cooperation and interoperability with installation of the IP bridge system. It will be hosting the Super Bowl at the Meadowlands in 2014 and already is gearing up for the event. County officials studied police and emergency operations in Indianapolis during the 2012 Super Bowl, and will be in New Orleans in February for the next championship game to get further pointers.

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