Why can’t we talk?
Managing Interoperable Communications
By: Patrick Oliver and Andrew Hull
Every local law enforcement agency must plan for communications interoperability to effectively manage an emergency within their jurisdiction. What is the “best practices” way for a local jurisdiction to effectively address the challenges of public safety communications interoperability?
The goal of interoperability is to facilitate effective communication among various agencies in an emergency situation. One challenge in establishing interoperability is the decentralized nature of law enforcement in the United States. Most critical infrastructure is made up of local agencies, meaning infrastructure differs in each city and the federal government will not get involved in an emergency situation until it is asked to do so.
Four factors inhibit agencies from communicating: 1) incompatible communications technology, 2) limited planning in updating and incorporating communications technology, 3) limited and fragmented radio spectrums, and 4) lack of coordination and cooperation between agencies.
First, there are outdated (20- to 40-year-old) communications technologies in use. Repairing these systems becomes increasingly costly as the necessary parts are no longer manufactured. Aging technology can obviously put the public and public safety officials at risk. The solution to fixing incompatible radio systems is the use of switching system technology to patch across the different radio systems.
Second, there is limited planning in updating and incorporating communications technology. In the event of a large-scale incident, interoperability requires that many agencies be able to communicate with each other. When developing a radio system, agencies usually consider only their needs rather than looking at how their radio system can interface with other agencies’ systems. Thus, multiple agencies rarely coordinate their radio systems prior to investment; interoperable communication then requires special patches, which can be expensive and risks loss of information in the event of a glitch.
Third, there is a lack of space in the radio frequency spectrum. Because the spectrum is a finite resource, only certain bands of frequencies are available for public safety use. According to the report Why Can’t We Talk (2005): “Public safety interests have to share radio spectrum with television broadcasters, radio broadcasters, government users, cell phones, and other products such as a garage door opener.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has allocated certain frequencies to public safety, but these are inadequate and scattered across the spectrum, making it difficult for different agencies and jurisdictions to communicate.” While previously public safety radios were only able to work at lower frequency, technology has improved and public safety radios can now transmit at higher frequencies.
Currently there are about 10 bands that have been allocated to public safety use. However, because these 10 bands are not all together in one part of the spectrum, the system remains fragmented.
Fourth, agencies lack coordination and cooperation. Although agencies are reluctant to give up control of their radio systems, they may need a single agency to function as the hub for the radio systems. Agencies need to consider pooling their resources, including money, in order to benefit the overall system.
International Interoperability Standards
The federal government has tried to address the problem of incompatible communication technology by creating the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials-International (APCO) Project 25 (P25). P25 is a set of standards for public safety agencies at the local, state, and federal levels; the standards allow agencies to communicate with other agencies or aid response teams in emergency situations. As part of these standards, manufacturers must comply with a minimum amount of P25 standards in order for the radio to be used for public safety.
There are several benefits to using P25-compliant radio technology. First, radios from different vendors can communicate with each other. Second, P25 standards are used internationally and are being adopted for private industry in airports, transit, petroleum, utilities, and chemical companies that rely on interoperability communication with public safety agencies. Third, P25 radios can be used in conventional operations and trunked operations. In conventional operation, agencies need a low-density system where there is direct communication between two users. The trunked operation is for agencies that have a high density of users who can communicate through a group of shared channels.
Fourth, P25 compliant radios can support voice and data transmissions of information. This includes the ability to use clear or encrypted information sharing. Fifth, P25 compliant radios are supported by the United States Department of Homeland Security: the DHS Office of Emergency Communications Fiscal Year 2010 SAFECOM Guidance for Federal Grant Programs specifies, “All new digital voice systems must be compliant with the P25 suite of standards.”
The final benefit of the P25 standards is they do not require their own set of frequencies. P25 technology allows voice and data transmission to take place on the same frequencies an agency was previously using and will communicate with other radio systems. P25 systems can function on VHF, UHF, 800 MHz and 700 MHz frequencies. While most radios previously functioned on one of these bands, technology has developed so some radios are able to transmit and receive multiple bands.
Recommended Response Plan
In response to incompatible communication technologies, agencies must transition to using the appropriate P25 technologies. Even though radio system manufacturers are required to comply with a minimum amount of the standards for common communication, manufacturers may have added features that make one radio system more beneficial to an agency with specific needs.
In response to the problems of limited planning in updating and incorporating communications, agencies should develop a communications interoperability plan that contains the following components: a mission statement, goals, objectives, and governance, and training and technology.
In order to realize the mission and achieve the interoperability vision, a number of goals and objectives must be established. The primary objective is to identify the responsible persons or groups within each region and to facilitate a process for each region to formally address and document the critical planning activities relating to communications interoperability. These include: 1) identify interoperability resources within each region, 2) develop and document applicable SOPs, 3) establish training and exercise programs, and 4) monitor progress and drive improvement.
An additional goal is full implementation of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) throughout the region via a phased approach to integrate it into all hazard plans, policies, procedures, and training and exercise plans throughout the collaborative area. Agencies also need to coordinate planning, training, and exercising to strengthen the region’s overall defenses.
When updating a communications system, agencies must determine and make decisions based on the types of information that need to be transmitted (unit status, intelligence, weather information, road/traffic information, driver’s license information, or criminal records) and the medium of communication (e-mail, fax, cellular phones, and direct voice and data communication).
Agencies must also take into account whether the links for communication are permanent or require a connection. If communication requires a connection, the agency must determine the acceptable amount of time to wait for the connection to be made. Permanent communications are preferable because of the time-sensitive nature of the public safety communications.
Ancillary Response Plan Issues
An additional response to the lack of planning in updating communications systems is to involve elected or appointed government officials in the process. Government officials set the budget for the municipality, so involving them in plans allows them to understand why the agency is asking for more funding. In addition, if the government official cannot reallocate funding in a budget, they may be aware of available grants or may be able to write a recommendation in the grant process.
It may also be beneficial to establish a governance structure to be in charge of the overall operations of the communications systems. This can be an existing structure or a structure formed specifically for the interoperable communications systems. A governing structure is beneficial because an outside body may be better suited than the agencies to consider the needs and functions of all agencies involved in the interoperable communications system. Developing a governing structure can help all agencies involved through better communication between agencies, coordination of resources based on agency function, and better cooperation.
In response to the lack of available space in the radio spectrum, agencies must consider both temporary and permanent solutions to the problem. One temporary solution is patching, the process of connecting two or more separate radio channels together so parties can communicate.
Patches are either made manually at a communications center through connecting wiring or through a computer-aided switching system, which patches frequencies of all attached radios. The advantage of this type of system is patched agencies can communicate while using their current technology. The downside is that without a switching system, the radios will only patch where system coverage overlaps.
Another temporary option is to develop a radio cache to store radios for other agencies that do not have the interoperable radio channel in their own radios. The benefit of this is that all agencies on scene will be able to communicate on the same radio frequencies. The disadvantage is that people must be aware of communications on two or more separate radio systems. Another disadvantage is that an agency has to invest in radios that are only used in situations where some responding agencies are not a part of the interoperable system; this may be difficult for an agency to financially justify.
A permanent solution is for an agency to invest in a trunked radio system. Most agencies use set channels for each type of communications (for example, one channel for car-to-car communications and another for communications with dispatch). The problem with this type of system is when one user is on the channel, no one else can use that frequency at that exact time.
Alternatively, a trunked communications system uses a group of frequencies for communications via a computer that selects an open channel. In the pool of multiple frequencies, groups of similar users are grouped together into talk groups and can communicate through the pool of frequencies.
Another permanent solution is transitioning to the 700 MHz band of frequencies, a band that was freed through the switch from analog to digital television. After the transition, these frequencies were reallocated to use for public safety agencies. The 700 MHz band of frequencies requires digital radio communications technology, but the benefit is more users can use the band because digital radio communications technology can produce a better voice quality over a longer distance than analog systems. Another benefit is that digital communications are more easily encrypted to securely transfer information.
The final solution for an agency is to join a regional or statewide system. Radio technology is limited by the geography of the area where it is being used; however, with the ability to interconnect with various towers and to reassign frequencies to cover a larger area, a system can work across an entire region or state.
An example of this system is the Ohio MARCS (Multi-Agency Radio Communication System). This system is an 800 MHz system that processes radio, data, and computer-aided dispatching (CAD) technologies across Ohio and provides statewide interoperability and clarity through a trunked system that can be used anywhere in the state as well as 10 miles over the state boundary in all directions.
Patrick Oliver is the Director of Criminal Justice Program at Cedarville University. Andrew Hull is a criminal justice student at Cedarville University. Professor Oliver may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.