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M/A-COM Boosts New Orleans' Radio Capabilities

Written by James Careless

A year after Hurricane Katrina ravaged The Big Easy, New Orleans and its outlying parishes are still years from recovery. With another hurricane season in full swing, M/A-COM had stepped up to supply the cash-strapped city with NetworkFirst radio interoperability equipment. Currently being installed, the IP-based NetworkFirst will allow New Orleans first responders to communicate with other incompatible radio systems in Jefferson, St. Bernard, St. Tammany and Plaquemines parishes. M/A-COM is also working to connect this NetworkFirst system to state, federal and military agencies.

“M/A-COM has been the supplier for New Orleans’ public safety radio system for more than 11 years, and through this partnership, they have provided us with this equipment on a cost-free loan basis so that we will be better prepared for the 2006 and 2007 hurricane seasons,” explained Col. Terry J. Ebbert, New Orleans’ director of Homeland Security. “NetworkFirst will enable a fireman in Jefferson Parish to communicate with a city police officer in New Orleans, which is a vital capability for our public safety first responders…”

“This interoperable technology solution will allow the city of New Orleans and the surrounding parishes to get ready for the upcoming hurricane season as the state and the city consider the acquisition of permanent solutions,’’ M/A-COM Public Safety Marketing Director John Facella said in the same news release. “M/A-COM has loaned the equipment and technology to New Orleans and surrounding area officials as a gesture of goodwill while they continue to rebuild their beautiful city in the aftermath of last year’s events.”

New Orleans will enjoy this loan through the 2007 hurricane season. “At the end of the second storm season, there is always the hope that the city will be happy enough with it that they may decide to purchase it,” Facella was quoted as saying. “But that’s not a requirement, and we’ve been very clear to the city that, after two storm seasons, if they don’t like NetworkFirst, we will happily disconnect and move on.”

How NetworkFirst Works

NetworkFirst is a voice over IP (VoIP) platform that can best be thought of as a telephone switching system. The difference is that, instead of switching between different telephones, NetworkFirst switches between different radio systems—whether they are compatible or not.

The reason NetworkFirst can get around system incompatibility is because it ignores the RF spectrum completely. Instead, it solves the interoperability problem by having each participating radio system send audio into a NetworkFirst voice gateway, where it is converted into IP data packets. Next, the packets are routed into a NetworkFirst Switching Center, which moves traffic between each of the radio networks. The result is seamless interoperability without the requirement for adding one new radio tower, transmitter, or handheld portable.

New Orleans’ 24-channel M/A-COM EDACS 800MHz radio network, which serves the city’s police, fire, and EMS, survived the storm. In fact, the only reason it failed afterwards is because the emergency generator that powered the city’s primary radio transmitter shut down after flying glass pierced its radiator.

Unfortunately, the chaos that raged in New Orleans resulted in M/A-COM technicians initially being blocked from entering the city. Once the right people found out, things changed. Eventually, M/A-COM officials sent more than 10,000 pieces of equipment to the site including 1,500 radio handsets. They also sent more than 50 personnel to provide after-hurricane repairs, with the once-barred techs being allowed into New Orleans on Sept. 1, 2005.

M/A-COM wasn’t the only radio manufacturer to lend a helping hand. For instance, Motorola provided more than 2,500 portable radios, charged batteries, and chargers, plus three emergency communications trailers. Meanwhile, EF Johnson issued a number of Project 25 digital radios to the National Guard. Still, the fact that M/A-COM was New Orleans’ radio vendor mattered, as did the company’s willingness to pitch in when the going got tough. It is within this context that the NetworkFirst equipment loan took place. M/A-COM’s actions could end up saving lives during this hurricane season in New Orleans.

James Careless is a freelance writer who specializes in first responder communications issues. He can be reached at jcareless5000@yahoo.com.


Published in Law and Order, Sep 2006

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