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MSCommNet -- a hybrid of new and old technology to meet a higher network standard

Written by Shawn Romanoski

Like the state’s diverse geography, the challenges faced by Maine’s law enforcement, public safety and public service first responders are equally unique. For a number of years, Maine’s first responder agencies have used a two-channel “repeater” analog system to communicate with other agencies, but the reliability, flexibility and interoperability of this system is limited. Additionally, in a few years, the frequencies that the aging system uses will no longer be in compliance with the FCC’s (Federal Communication Commission) narrrowbanding initiative.

When Maine’s Office of Information Technology was first formed, the immediate challenge was to consolidate state department e-mail domains and departmental systems which were hosted by each agency onto one centralized platform (enterprise system) managed by OIT. Despite some initial resistance to change, the e-mail consolidation initiative ultimately provided a unified, stable and sustainable messaging system for all state agencies. Several years later land-mobile radio systems are adopting IP (Internet Protocol) platforms as a preferred way to transmit voice and data. These wireless networks are now falling under the management of departments that historically have only managed wired networks. Using a model similar to the state’s consolidation of e-mail, the Maine Office of Information Technology is streamlining land-mobile radio systems serving law enforcement, public safety and public service agencies creating a unified radio network.

History of Maine’s Statewide Public Safety Communications

In the early 1970s and 1980s, Maine deployed several statewide VHF high-band radio systems for law enforcement agencies, as well as many of the state’s firefighters and Emergency Medical Services. The new system offered limited statewide interoperable communications channels for fire, EMS and law enforcement agencies. The “State Fire” channel was used to request mutual aid and provide interoperability at the scene of emergencies. The law enforcement channel, called “State Wide Car to Car” (SWCC), assisted various law enforcement agencies when a situation required multiple agencies to coordinate their communications in the field.

Almost four decades later, many of the state’s agencies have access to SWCC in their dispatch centers, ambulances, and rescue and fire apparatus. While limited day-to-day interoperability between primary and secondary public safety agencies can be met utilizing these common channels, their capacity is insufficient to support mission critical communications during large-scale emergency events that require multiple agency response and coordination. Additionally, the use of any agency’s primary channel for interoperability is a poor solution for a variety of reasons. This includes, but is not limited to, tying up the agency’s primary dispatch channel for incident and tactical communications.

During extreme weather conditions or during coastal search and rescue situations, departments like the Marine Patrol often have to communicate with State Police or other agencies involved in the search. The Marine Patrol’s radio system operates on different frequencies than the State Police. This means a dispatcher must manually patch a radio user through to the right department or the radio user has to switch to mutual aid channels where air time can be precious and the agency you need to speak with may not be monitoring the channel at that moment.

While aging infrastructure and interoperability issues are the most pressing reasons for consolidating the state’s land-mobile radio infrastructure into a single modern statewide radio network, there are financial benefits that are motivating the process. Divided among numerous departments are more than 70 radio towers. Taking a page from the consolidation of e-mail, OIT realized that by bringing all agencies onto a single set of frequencies by utilizing a digital trunked land-mobile radio network, the state could increase radio coverage while reducing the number of towers to a number in the mid to upper 40s.

Beyond the obvious savings in electricity usage, reducing the number of towers also reduces the maintenance costs that are necessary at radio sites. Because OIT is building on the highly scalable IP radio infrastructure utilizing APCO Project 25 (P25) standards built by Harris Public Safety and Professional Communications, state agencies will have a wide range of P25 approved radios from various manufacturers. In the past many departments were forced to purchase radios from one or two manufacturers based on the radio system that was being deployed.

Taking the First Step

To improve the communication of the state’s first responder community, in 2003, The Office of Information Technology led an effort to develop and commission a 21st-century statewide publicsafety radio system that could utilize portions of Maine’s existing communications infrastructure. They did this while incorporating a new foundation to address current and future requirements as well as the needs of their public safety agencies.

Maine’s Chief Information Officer Greg McNeal explained the need for the expansion of the system, “Public safety agencies throughout Maine have to expand and strengthen their interoperable communication capabilities and protocols. The enhanced interoperability via a robust ‘statewide network’ will enhance Maine’s public safety operations day-to-day as well as scaling up to accommodate communications needs during mutual aid, major events, emergencies and disasters.”

After a competitive 2008 bidding process and 2009 award, the State of Maine selected a bid from a team lead by Harris RF Communications to deploy MSCommNet, a new statewide VHF radio system. The P25IP VHF system, which is fully compliant with the federal Project 25 (P25) standard, will include 40 sites throughout the State of Maine and guarantees mobile radio coverage across 95 percent of the state for Maine’s public safety first responders. MSCommNet will be a trunked/conventional hybrid P25IP system based on Harris’ VIDA (Voice, Interoperability, Data, Access) Network platform. Supporting suppliers included on Harris RF Communications’ winning bid include Jacobs Telecommunications, Radio Communications Management and Alcatel-Lucent.

The State of Maine & Harris RF Communications

Through the VIDA Network platform, two proven technologies (trunking and conventional) will be integrated onto a single MSCommNet network with transparency to the day-to-day public safety user. The system’s trunking technology will provide advanced feature sets and capacity efficiencies, while the P25 conventional component will reduce the power requirements of remote sites. Additionally, the hybrid trunked/conventional P25 system will provide critical ‘trunk-like’ features including group, individual and emergency call functionality.

Designated users will have the ability to communicate to any other user without dispatcher intervention no matter which tower site they’re connecting through, the region or agency. The flexibility and interoperability of the system is a huge benefit to all the agencies, but the MSCommNet system is designed to give agencies the control over who can listen to their talk groups. With the VIDA platform, all of the state’s public safety agencies will have independent secure partitioning, secure assigned talkgroups and configuration clients allowing local control.

The VIDA Network will allow the state’s system users to continue to use VHF frequencies for first responders who operate in rural areas. NetworkFirst, which has been designated as a Qualified Anti-Terrorism Technology under the Department of Homeland Security’s SAFETY Act, connects legacy systems through its uniquely innovative IP-network architecture.

“The flexibility and depth of VIDA will enable the state of Maine to deploy a hybrid trunked/conventional VHF radio system that meets and exceeds the requirements of Phase 1 and, in the future, Phase 2 of the P25 standard,” said Kevin MacKenna, Area Sales Manager, Harris Public Safety and Professional Communications. “The system will provide the state with a clear migration path for future expansion, extending the life of the system to provide Maine’s public safety agencies and officials with the communications they need while keeping costs to Maine’s citizens reasonable.”

Currently OIT, Harris and their partners are in the early stage of deployment for the MSCommNet infrastructure and consolidation plan. Set for completion in 2012, Maine OIT is working with state and regional public safety agencies to ensure the migration to the network is smooth and meets the needs of the state’s first responders. As public safety voice and data communications continue to migrate from analog to digital, the opportunity arises for IT departments to apply their network knowledge and expertise in creating efficient and secure LMR systems.

Shawn Romanoski is the Radio Services Director for the Maine Office of Information Technology. Photos courtesy of Harris.

Published in Public Safety IT, Jan/Feb 2011

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