The bad news
: Seven years after 9/11, radio interoperability between first responder agencies remains an issue. The good news:
Since the attack on the World Trade Center, many creative interoperability products have come to market. One of the most interesting we have seen recently is BAE Systems’ First InterComm System. The reason: The First InterComm solution goes a step beyond the common approach to radio interoperability, where disparate transceivers are plugged into a common gateway box with software switching voice traffic between them. The Concept
The First InterComm System is built upon the Vehicle Communications Assembly (VCA). This is a shoebox-sized smart transceiver that is mounted within the cab or trunk of a first responder vehicle, usually the first vehicles to arrive at an incident. For the system to work, at least one vehicle from each agency responding to the scene needs to be equipped with a low-cost VCA. For instance, the fire, EMS and police vehicles that typically respond to mutual-aid situations, one vehicle from each agency needs to have a VCA on board, powered by its 12-volt electrical system.
When two or more VCA-equipped vehicles are on scene, the units will automatically detect each other’s presence and establish a wireless connection between each other. They then open access to pre-designated interoperability radio channels on each department’s radio system. All the first responders have to do is switch their existing portables over to their designated interop channels, and presto—instant interoperability!
Each VCA is connected into its respective department’s radio system, and it will access and relay voice and allow video, geolocation, and data feeds to and from dispatch if desired.
Thanks to the VCAs, the responding agencies’ incompatible radio systems are automatically and instantly interconnected with the portable radios they use every day. There is no need to set up a separate mobile command center, string wires, or roll out a gateway device. The First InterComm Systems can handle it all. This system is useful every day in small incidents and scales up to handle large incidents.
One nice feature is that as more VCA-equipped vehicles arrive, the First InterComm network automatically expands to include them. This provides numerous advantages, not the least of which is the creation of a wireless “mesh” network right at the incident scene.
Put simply, a mesh network allows one VCA unit to connect to any of the other VCAs, and any of the others to connect to it, and it is all wireless. Imagine a net. Each point where the weave crosses is a connection point into the net. This creates a mesh of pathways between the points and the communications follows the strongest path through the mesh network.
In contrast, a traditional spoke-and-hub network requires remote radios to connect to each other through a central radio hub. This results in traffic overloads when too many people are trying to talk and the chance of network breakdown if the hub fails.
Since each VCA is also connected back to command, each unit becomes a “node” on this ad hoc mutual-aid network. This provides tremendous communications redundancy. If one VCA goes down or leaves the scene, the others keep the network intact and operational.
“Each VCA is capable of handling all transmissions on its assigned frequency,” said Mike Greene, BAE Systems’ director of Homeland Security Solutions in Nashua, NH. “Since the First InterComm System is self-sustaining, operating without the need for infrastructure, it will continue to operate in the aftermath of natural or man-made disasters.” Features
The First InterComm VCA provides an effective, flexible, and fast solution to mutual-aid radio interoperability. But it does more than that. By using Voice over IP (VoIP) technology, the First InterComm System makes it easy to send voice transmissions back and forth over IP-based networks. Since IP is now the de facto standard for modern LANs, First InterComm System makes first responder communications transportable over departmental LANs, and interconnectable on a national or even global scale to other first responder communications networks.
The First InterComm VoIP system offers incident commanders the option of creating up to 16 different talk-groups at the scene. When used in conjunction with predetermined incident command multi-agency command structures, this allows the person in charge to create talk-groups that include the people he needs and excludes those he doesn’t. In fact, the First InterComm System has been designed to meet National Incident Management System (NIMS) standards, meaning that it allows the NIMS Incident Command System (ICS) structure to be configured in predetermined talk-groups.
Thanks to this system’s mesh signal architecture, the First InterComm System can solve the problem of non-line-of-sight communications around large structures. For instance, a police vehicle on the north side of a burning oil refinery may not be able to see a second unit on the south side due to physical obstructions. But the first car’s First InterComm VCA can “see” a fire truck on the east side, and this truck’s VCA can “see” the police car on the south side. The result: Through mesh network connections, the north side car can talk to the south side car; just as if the oil refinery’s obstructing towers weren’t even there. Suitability for Service
Clearly, the First InterComm System is a step beyond today’s popular interoperability solutions. But is it a step too far in terms of today’s existing first responder technologies and capabilities?
The Department of Homeland Security doesn’t think so. It has reviewed the First InterComm System and endorsed this approach under the Support Anti-terrorism by Fostering Effective Technologies (SAFETY) Act of 2002.
Designed to promote fast development of anti-terrorism technology by providing its creators with liability protection, the SAFETY Act designation is DHS’ version of a “stamp of approval.” “This designation is another significant step in our ability to offer cost-effective communications interoperability for our nation’s first responders,” said Greene, when the designation was announced in March 2007. “This technology will help save lives during emergencies.” Considerations To solve the interoperability problem, agencies within the same jurisdiction must agree to purchase and install VCAs in their vehicles and ensure that such vehicles are always present at mutual-aid situations.
Making this happen requires money—something that Homeland Security may be willing to provide through grants, given the First InterComm System’s SAFETY Act designation. To get this money, interested agencies will have to do their homework and file grant applications. Information about available Homeland Security grants can be found at www.dhs.gov/xgovt/grants/index.sht
The First InterComm System is so useful that the acquisition of one may justify a public fund-raising campaign. Should DHS not come through with grant money, a public campaign could cover the cost and generate good press for your department to boot. After all, citizens like to feel that they are making a difference in their community. Helping to fund a First InterComm System may be the kind of thing to get local community groups on your side and generate public goodwill in general.
One point is worth making here: The apparent flexibility and capability of the First InterComm System makes it worth the trouble of raising funds to buy it. This is a creative and clever solution to the interoperability conundrum—one that goes a step beyond simply plugging disparate radios together into and improved “telephone exchange.” James Careless is a freelance writer who specializes in first responder communications issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.