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With more on the line, IT experts need to weigh in on radio communications

Written by James Mustarde

We live in a world wired for Internet Protocol (IP). It’s how we bank, do business, entertain ourselves—it’s our global communications super highway, and leaving home with an IP-enabled device is the norm these days rather than the exception. So, why then is IP-enabled communications technology—that is acknowledged by global economies as a backbone for data transport and leveraged as a literal life-line for global militaries—still unrecognized widely by public safety organizations as a status quo for communication in mission-critical scenarios?

Like every other segment of the public and private sectors, public safety organizations have invested heavily in IP. Virtual private networks, IP telephony and sophisticated incident management software designed specifically to coordinate response efforts during major events, emergencies and disasters are commonplace to these institutions—with the latter being instrumental to the success of first responders. When it comes to public safety radio response, however, the same institutions have been slow to take advantage of its benefits. IT professionals seem absent from the radio communications discussion.

We’ve learned from homeland crises like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina and from daily public-safety response scenarios that the success of missions relies on extensive cross-collaboration. And, as purse strings get tighter for municipalities across the nation, timing is ripe for public safety organizations to leverage their existing IP resources for their radio communications networks. In doing so, for the first time, these communities can realize true interoperability, but more importantly, they can extend the reach and presence of existing equipment.

For this to work, radio communications decisions must include IT professionals as well as radio experts. Currently, it seems that organization’s radio professionals are making tactical decisions—with an emphasis and over-reliance on hardware. These decisions have profound impacts on an organizations’ ability to realize its interoperability objectives—and on the evolution of its communications strategy. Certainly radio professionals understand operability, and they know on the ground level which device is best for their institution. But when it comes to the interconnection of radio systems, there is much that can be learned from IT experts in terms of infrastructure and network potential.

Currently, effort is being poured into the adoption of Project 25 (P25), the suite of standards for digital radio communications for use by federal, state and local public safety agencies—an expensive technology created to enable cross-agency communication and collaboration. While greater radio system operability (range, data content, alarms, etc.) is at the core of the initiative, upgrading operability with P25 does nothing to improve interoperability for a non-P25 user (by far the largest radio population today and in the foreseeable future). Wider agency and non-agency interoperability is possible only if more P25 radios are sold—making P25 just another radio technology that needs IP to make it interoperable with other non-P25 systems.

Twisted Pair Solutions

Additionally, most municipalities can’t afford to make a quantum leap to P25, and some may never adopt it. Software is an alternative to prohibitively expensive cross-agency digital radio upgrades. Radio over IP (RoIP) software like WAVE® from Twisted Pair Solutions allows agencies to leverage existing IP investments and radio communications resources to unify mixed communications environments and to extend the scope and functionality of existing resources. IT experts can play a huge role in advising communications strategists on how to leverage these technologies and investments to make tight budgets go further when agencies are expected to do more with less.

For Don Miller, Telecommunications and Warning Systems manager for the Washington State Emergency Management Division (WA EMD), software was the only solution he had for coordinating public safety communications among the diverse assortments of agencies with jurisdiction in Washington. From the Department of Homeland Security to the Washington State Patrol to local and county Fire and Rescue, he was able to unify a broad range of communications devices for real-time emergency-response leveraging software.

Miller said, “Whether users are leveraging P25 or a mixed bag of P25 and old analog systems, they can achieve extremely effective and affordable interoperable environments by using IP as the intelligent transport.” He continued: “The industry is focused on P25 for upgrading communications functions, but this does little to improve interoperability with those who don’t have P25, and it’s too expensive for some. Software like WAVE is a cost effective way for organizations to get all of their systems talking together.”

Like the WA EMD, IP and software are already being used in public safety environments, and if applied to mission-critical communications, agencies can realize objectives only dreamed about previously. As such, next-generation decision makers are recognizing this as a critical component to their overall radio communications strategy, no longer centering purchasing decisions solely on the next hardware advancement. Rather, they are determining how to do better jobs while spending less through the adoption of software.

This means bringing IT experts into the radio communications decision process now to look more closely at previous commitments and investments—a large one being IP. As organizations have already invested in IP and can leverage this investment to extend radio communications quickly and inexpensively through software, this is increasingly becoming a best and “next” practice. Software can unify communications in ways hardware can’t with superior advantages: It costs far less, it is already being used within the agency, and perhaps most compelling—software counters the age-old complaint about hardware—it is scalable. Agencies don’t have to lock into a new proprietary hardware commitment that may be wrong for their business or that they may outgrow before they’ve recouped their investment.

James Mustarde is the director of marketing for Twisted Pair Solutions.

Published in Public Safety IT, Jul/Aug 2010

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