For decades, interoperable communications have been a documented public safety problem. Following 9/11, this communications nightmare was brought to the forefront. Fortunately, the combination of federal funding and new technology availed many affordable solutions for first responders. This article provides an overview that can be deployed by any discipline (Fire, Law Enforcement and EMS).
Having been immersed in the world of interoperable communications, I began to explore a solution that would achieve three specific goals based on desired outcomes and identified gaps. As you have read in many articles, the region in which I serve (the City of Charlottesville, County of Albemarle and the University of Virginia) has collectively planned and determined new preparedness strategies together for more than 15 years. And while we are implementing a new Motorola Public Safety Digital 800 MHz radio system and have established a parallel networked region-wide using Nextel's Direct Connect iDen system (which will also be linked to our 800 MHz radio system), there are functional voids that remain.
The three goals were:
- Tactical voice interoperability with outside agencies (FBI, Health, National Guard, etc.)
- Ability to establish voice/data communications via satellite
- Ability to perform emergency/preparedness alerting to first responders and citizens
In order to make any decision, it is best to have a procedure that will guide the process to the desired outcome. After reviewing many solutions, I came to the following decision process called SWEET. SWEET is an acronym for:
S Simple to deploy (with little or no training or technical support)
W Within one hour (to meet Rapidcom* guidelines)
E Easy to adapt when new devices are to be added (without technical support)
E Easy on the pocketbook (fits into the reasonable grant funding stream)
T Tested and durable for the environment
*Rapidcom is a SAFECOM initiative to establish interoperable communications within one hour of an incident.
Now let's see how this process applies to the solutions chosen to meet the goals and eliminate the gaps.
Goal #1 - To interconnect voice via disparate wireless devices - Selection was the Incident Commanders' Radio Interface (ICRI?). Website: www.radiointeroperability.com
S - the ICRI is simple to deploy and to train others to use - with no technical support.
W - within one hour - how about less than 5 minutes
E - Easy to adapt when unexpected devices are added - no problem/no technical support.
E - Easy on the pocketbook - generally less than competitors and within grant funding
T - Tested and durable - has been tested by the military and numerous public safety agencies.
The ICRI is used by many public safety agencies and was recently purchased by the Virginia State Police to be deployed in each of its seven statewide divisions. Its simplicity is its true value. Turn it on, connect the wireless device(s) by cable, turn radios on and you are in operation. The ICRI will also operate on 8 "AA" batteries for 30 hours. It comes in a number of sizes and configurations and can fit in any vehicle. The ICRI can connect to any radio, cell phone, satellite phone, Nextel Direct Connect?, or other wireless device.
Goal #2 - To communicate by satellite, establish a tactical wireless network and enable wireless video. The selection was Edge Access. Website: www.edgeaccess.com
S - Edge Access is easy to deploy
W - Within one hour - how about 5 minutes or less
E - Easy to adapt - generally the adaptability is enhanced by the ICRI.
E - Easy on the pocketbook - comparatively and for the service it's within available grant funding.
T - Tested and durable - it has and is being used by the military and public safety.
The Edge Access Integrated Interoperability Solution (IIS) by my comparisons was the best buy based on the capabilities provided. The system provides 512k download capabilities via the XtremeSat satellite service, standard telephones, wireless printer/fax, wireless video, 802.xx hot spot phones, creates a - mile wireless hotspot and provides many channels of Voice over IP (VoIP) as well as allowing telephony access through the ICRI - which provides the ability to talk to virtually anyone in the world.
To setup Edge Access - turn the unit on, press the setup button and it self deploys the TracStar Systems satellite dish, self locates automatically and establishes the wireless network - all within 5 minutes. The system comes with a computer server which establishes the wireless hotspot and can be used for other programs such as incident command, hazardous materials reference, GIS applications and much more.
Goal #3 - To alert first responders and/or citizens quickly via text messaging to email and other wireless devices. The selection was the Emergency Email Wireless Network (EEWN). Website: www.emergencyemail.org
S - Simple to deploy - it is web based - enter your username and password.
W - Within one hour - within seconds you are up and running.
E - Easy to adapt - can send messages to any wireless device, email, voice or desktop. Also has connectivity to the ICRI (above) allowing messages to be sent interoperably to all devices connected via the ICRI. There's even a satellite interface.
E - Easy on the pocketbook - web based, price is right - no expensive infrastructure to purchase or maintain. Premised installed also available.
T - Tested and durable - being used by public safety agencies and has over 500,000 nationwide subscribers and has handled over 1/2 billion messages since 1999 making it the most used solution in the country.
The EEWN is done through a web portal or from your cell phone or Blackberry and is as simple as using Yahoo or other free online email accounts but much more versatile. It can be used from an EOC, on site at an incident or from anywhere. Login, enter your message, select the list and SEND - within seconds the message reaches subscribers. Through the use of multiple canned messages, many emergency operations plan (EOP) notifications can be automated such that they become dynamic and make the EOP more effective. The EEWN is being used very effectively by the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association to provide E-News to its members for both general and sensitive information. It also has the ability to attach files such as pdf documents, images and/or maps or other instructional files. EEWN also provides free weather warnings to anyone in the United States directly to alphanumeric pagers, wireless phones, Blackberry devices, email, etc. Subscribers can self-register within 30 seconds or the administrator if desired can establish lists.
In short, Charlottesville has determined its IGs and overcome them by implementing the aforementioned solutions.
In less than 5 minutes and operating from a single vehicle the following can be achieved:
- Voice connect between disparate radios and wireless devices
- Satellite telephone service - fixed and wireless (wireless within the hotspot)
- 1/4 mile wireless network hotspot
- Wireless video enabled (wireless digital video camera included)
- Internet access with 512k broadband download
- Notification/Alerting system accessible from any internet enabled device
An important end note, there are many other good interoperability solutions that may suit your department's needs. The intent of this article was to tell about the tactical interoperability equipment that was purchased to support the Charlottesville public safety agencies and to provide a process that you may apply to your interoperable communications purchases.