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Land mobile radios and public safety IT: Established manufacturers learn new tricks
By James Careless
For many public safety IT directors, the names “Motorola” and “Tyco Electronics” (formerly M/A-COM) mean radios—analog and digital devices that their departments rely on but that don’t play a role in the IT world.
Well, think again. As public safety communications migrate toward IP, both Motorola’s and Tyco’s radio offerings have kept pace. In fact, both companies now offer broadband solutions that not only improve voice / data communications for law enforcement officers, but they offer real advantages to IT departments.
Traditionally, Motorola has been known for its narrowband voice radios and data terminals. But times have changed. Today, the company offers broadband wireless solutions that can carry a broad range of voice, data and video.
A case in point: Motorola has developed an IP-based mesh network transmission that can be deployed during emergency situations to ensure carriage of voice, data and video during emergencies. Known as the Incident Scene, Event and Disaster Management Data (ISEDMD) solution, this product provides reliable, interoperable data communications in multi-agency situations. The ISEDMD system can be deployed as a standalone or linked to a department’s existing LAN.
Here’s how it works: An incident command vehicle is equipped with the ISEDMD, including wireless transceivers, monitors, computers, radios and video equipment. It also has a wireless broadband link back to the department via 3G wireless, satellite, or radio transmission in the unlicensed bands. In turn, this link allows the incident command vehicle to link directly to state and federal agencies and to share data back and forth in real time.
In the field, the incident command vehicle’s personnel distribute video cameras, radios and laptops to first responders. All of these connect back to the incident command vehicle using a broadband mesh radio (MOTOMESH) network. Unlike a traditional hub-and-spoke radio network, where all portable units connect back to a single central base station, a mesh network allows everyone to interconnect with each other directly.
There are many advantages to this. First, a mesh network offers multiple signal paths: If one path is blocked, the sending units automatically route their signals to the next one. Second, a mesh network allows radio-equipped units at the network’s fringe to link to the device closest to them, which can then link back to the incident command vehicle and, from there, back to the departmental LAN. Third, by virtue of their multi-path architecture, mesh networks are self-healing.
Besides being useful at incident scenes, MOTOMESH wireless broadband networks can also be used permanently to backhaul data between stations and to transport remote surveillance video. In the first instance, “MOTOMESH point-to-point and point-to-multipoint systems enable agencies to deliver wide area broadband and can eliminate the need to procure and provision expensive T1-E1 landlines,” said Tom Quirke, Motorola’s senior director of marketing. “You don’t have to spend all that time and money; with wireless broadband, you simply deploy the new transceiver, turn it on, and allow it onto your secure network.”
In the second instance, MOTOMESH makes it easy to deploy broadband-enabled digital surveillance cameras wherever you need them, with the only cabling required being local power. Once online, the camera connects back to your LAN via wireless broadband, allowing you to view and control its operations from a distance. It is also possible to send this video directly to patrol cars in the area, providing responding officers with a real-time look at what they are driving into.
Does it make a difference? Well, in Los Angeles’ Jordan Downs 700-unit public housing development in Watts, the answer is yes. To deter crime, the Los Angeles Police Department installed 10 wireless video surveillance cameras in 2006, which were linked back to headquarters using a MOTOMESH broadband wireless network. (The signals are carried on the 2.4 and 4.9 GHz bands.) The system allows patrol officers to select camera views as they need to, viewing the feeds live either on their laptop computers or handheld wireless devices. The result: Crime is down 40%, according to city officials. “We found that by informing citizens of the neighborhood that their actions will be recorded, we’ve actually modified behavior,” said LAPD Chief Detective Damien LeVesque.
The bottom line is that Motorola’s MOTOMESH broadband wireless solution can solve problems for a public safety agency, as well as provide its IT departments with IP-based transport that supports true operational integration between dispatch, patrol officers and the corporate LAN.
IP is a long-standing area of interest for Tyco Electronics. This explains why it has a number of IP-based products aimed directly at public safety agencies, including VIDA Broadband, NetworkFirst and P25IP.
Like MOTOMESH, VIDA Broadband is a high-speed wireless platform. The difference is VIDA Broadband uses standards-based IEEE 802.16 (WiMAX) technology in the 4.9 GHz band only, which is integrated with Tyco’s VIDA Network IP system. The result is a secure broadband platform that integrates with IP networks and Tyco’s range of digital radio products.
VIDA Broadband can be connected to a department’s LAN, extending its capabilities throughout the agency’s wireless footprint. This means that data stored back at dispatch, including warrants and driver’s licensing information, can be ported directly to an officer’s laptop or handheld PC. For large “data dumps” (i.e. software updates), VIDA Broadband can connect directly to mobile devices whenever they are within range of a VIDA Broadband Basestation (Hot Zone). When they go out of range, any high-capacity downloads are put on hold until they come into another Hot Zone. (Such large downloads can be done over the wide area / lower data rate wireless network, but waiting to do software upgrades until a vehicle is within Hot Zone range conserves bandwidth.)
NetworkFirst provides interagency radio interoperability at the network level. The reason: Rather than relying on physical audio bridges with different makes and models of radios plugged in, NetworkFirst connects different agencies via their LANs. In this way, the connections can be run over IP, the common language of today’s IT world.
Practically speaking, NetworkFirst ports voice channels from one department to the dispatch center of another, so that the first agency’s voice traffic can be sent out over the second agency’s radio network (and vice versa). In this scenario, each department’s radio system is used for distribution and collection of public safety traffic; interconnection happens at the IP level only.
“Since NetworkFirst connects users at the system level, it does not matter what frequencies or brands of radio system are being connected,” said Greg Henderson, director of broadband products and technology for Tyco Electronics Wireless Systems. “Analog or digital, trunked or conventional, Brand X or Brand Y, they are all the same to a NetworkFirst system. Users simply go to a preset interoperability talk-group and begin to communicate. That’s all there is to it.”
P25IP combines interoperable P25 radio equipment with Voice over IP technology. In other words, Tyco’s P25IP uses VoIP technology to distribute voice and data radio traffic within an agency’s LAN and to other agencies via IP networking. With integrated NetworkFirst capabilities, analog radios within a network enjoy features traditionally supported by digital P25 radios—such as Priority Call and Inter-System Roaming—because P25IP supports these features itself.
“Overall, our IP-based technology interconnects seamlessly with conventional LANs,” Henderson said. “For departments wishing to bring their voice, data and video communications and IT divisions closer—and to eventually integrate everything onto a single, common IP platform—Tyco Electronics has some practical, proven solutions.”
How to Sell Your Department
For IT professionals, the advantages of migrating departmental communications to an IP platform are quite obvious. If this can be done using manufacturers that police officers are comfortable with, so much the better: Motorola and Tyco are known commodities from the chief’s office on down.
This said, IT managers planning to promote IP in-house should do their homework before making their pitch. This means not only learning what radio equipment your department is using, but what upgrade plans are in the works. Also, you need to find out what shortfalls exist in the current radio system and what priority the brass puts on resolving them. Thanks to chronic underfunding, first responder agencies tend to prioritize which problems should be dealt with first. So find out your department’s priorities, and see how IP can help achieve them.
One common problem is radio interoperability, the ease with which departments can (or cannot) talk to each other using their different radio platforms. As mentioned above, an IP solution can resolve the interoperability problem by addressing it at the network level, before signals are fed to each department’s specific radio system. Also, IP interoperability can allow one department to support the dispatch functions of a group when disaster knocks out a department’s HQ, or the situation demands a unified approach.
IP is also relatively “future-proof”—a point that will likely appeal to chiefs tired of buying expensive equipment that becomes obsolete within a few years.
For a final selling point, you can turn to your department’s land mobile radio vendor (such as Motorola or Tyco) for support in pitching IP. These companies know which way the wind is blowing and are doing their very best to embrace IP-based technology and solutions.
The Big Picture
Public safety communications are in an evolutionary phase, one that is far bigger than just a transition from analog to digital radio equipment. In fact, what is occurring is nothing less than a paradigm shift from standalone, limited function voice / low-speed data transmission to integrated, interoperable multimedia communications through radios, cellular phones, satellites, high-speed wireless, and Ethernet. To explain this shift metaphorically, public safety is graduating from handheld walkie-talkies to fully-enabled 3G wireless telephony.
IP is central to this evolution. This is why public safety IT managers need to play a bigger role in their departments’ communications planning, procurement and system management. As the years pass, police, fire and EMS will increasingly rely on communications devices that operate in IP backbones and interface seamlessly with LANs and WANs. This said, they will likely turn to Motorola, Tyco and other radio vendors that they know and trust. Again, public safety IT managers should start researching these companies’ products and getting to know their staff…sooner rather than later.
James Careless is a freelance writer who specializes in first responder communications issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in Public Safety IT, Jan/Feb 2009
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