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APCO Project 25: Thinking outside the box

Written by K. B. Kenney

Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster; 9/11 was a direct attack. It was determined by minds that are trained in rescue/security issues that communications were an absolute mess in both situations. That particular problem is something that can be handled with proper preparation. This idea was born during the APCO Project 25 thinking that began in 1989.

The goal is to have everyone responding to a scene of any emergency, allowing the opportunity for communications between each agency on scene, no matter where they are from. A narrowband digital communication which allows agencies to use any vendor’s portable radio on a single land-based system is an extremely large step forward in the achievement of that goal. With digital, you can also encrypt the band to prohibit anyone from listening to the frequency. Vendors are now sharing communication ideas due to government requirements regarding Homeland Security issues. The question is: Can the communication plan survive, regarding every emergency situation, if everyone is on the same operational frequency band?

One thought that needs to be considered is the difference between the types of emergencies being dealt with. Any type of disaster, be it hurricane, earthquake or airplane crash, needs to be dealt with on the level that APCO Project 25 has identified as a proper communication idea. One digital frequency will allow problem areas to be identified to secondary responders before even reaching the scene. What a difference it will make when an outside responder can receive direct instructions while responding to the scene and perhaps save a life while en-route with manpower and special equipment. That particular scenario is one that is absolutely necessary.

Now, what about a large-scale terrorist attack, or even a small one such as a suicide bomber? Initially it would be unknown how many subjects are involved, whether the attack was coordinated, and/or whether there are other dangers still at hand regarding public/victim safety, responder’s safety and Homeland Security issues.

To start off, digital technology should be used on a nationwide basis. Yet the fact remains that certain types of technology exist that will wipe out digital frequency communications in specific areas anywhere in a U.S./global community at any given time. So, what do we do when that happens? How will agencies communicate within their own systems if everyone is on the single digital frequency that has been trashed? That would mean every agency responding to the area of concern would be without radio communication of any kind among each other, depending on the range of dead zone interference. Nor would they be able to communicate with the agency in charge of the scene. No one would know what the other person was doing. Do we need to instill the idea that every emergency agency needs to have the digital frequency technology in place, along with a different additional system? Perhaps saving the system that was replaced by the digital program would be a good answer.

The initial action should be to begin with a system that is operational for every emergency agency responding to the area of concern. The Homeland Security Project 25 direction would allow that national concept to exist. However, the United States has thousands of regional agencies involved with law enforcement and fire departments. Looking at the money situation agencies are facing today, will every agency actually have the funds to move to a completely digital system? Can a national funding arrangement be made with vendors to supply all agencies with the equipment needed? Are the vendors going to wait for their money? Do the community residents have the means to pay higher taxes to facilitate the idea? Is this going to be a system that will force vendors out on a limb? Is the U.S. government going to take charge of who can and cannot make the systems that can be used by emergency agencies? Perhaps that is the only way the system will work, but when that system is faulted what happens?

Agencies need to realize that the old systems they have might be their only means of communication if the main system goes down. There are ways to interrupt all radio systems, but with multiple agencies on different bands, it is unlikely that a terrorist organization would be able to blank out every band out there. Sometimes confusion can become an ally, depending on the problem you are dealing with. If, in fact, the main digital communication system is compromised and foreign agencies are on the ground, confusion to any enemy agency as to how the area is still able to communicate (because they actually had a backup system) will be of great benefit. But again, it is going to cost the agencies money to maintain that along with the national digital issue.

There is probably no standard answer other than making sure every agency understands, if in fact a national/global system is put in place, that there has to be a backup system for each agency involved. Some communication is better than no communication, and thinking outside the box will be necessary to come up with a plan that can attack a problem with no definitive answer before it happens. We must be proactive when it comes to defending an area, not reactive. A system that cannot be tampered with is essential when it comes to the Project 25 idea. Perhaps there is one out there right now that we, who are looking in from the outside and shopping for the answer, cannot see yet.

K. B. Kenney is the fleet manager for the Belvidere, IL Police Department.

Published in Public Safety IT, Jan/Feb 2010

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