New software puts first responders on same page
Communications devices on different frequencies a problem when responding to disasters
By Julia Malone
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Copyright 2006 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Live video of airline passengers making their way through a security checkpoint at the Dallas Love Field airport flashes on a laptop screen.
The same computer displays radio contacts for local police and fire departments, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration and the Texas Department of Public Safety — agencies that until recently could not hear each other's radio signals.
Now, with just a few clicks on a laptop or a pocket-sized computer, experimental software will link up their radios, walkie-talkies and security camera images.
Even participants working thousands of miles away in Atlanta at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can join in the conference call and watch unfolding events at the Dallas airport.
Financed by a $980,000 federal grant, the experiment will be on display today at Love Field when officials launch the operation phase for a possible remedy to a massive communication problem that has long plagued emergency response efforts nationwide.
After the inability of police and firefighters to radio each other was blamed for adding to the death toll in the Sept. 11 attacks, the commission that examined them made bridging communications gaps a high priority.
With the problem still largely unsolved, a Seattle-based tech firm, CoCo Communications, has been aggressively pushing a system that does not require purchasing new radios or other gear or reassigning radio frequencies.
CoCo's software, which operates on off-the-shelf computers or hand-held devices, brings various agencies together by connecting their current communications equipment.
Schools in Seattle and Prince William County, Va., have bought the system to enable their security phones to operate throughout school buildings, which typically have "dead" spots. The Coast Guard uses the software to enable its radios to operate, even when its personnel go into the bowels of a cargo ship for a security inspection.
The Love Field project, which took more than a year to set up, aims at tying together 12 agencies with nine radio systems.
"They seemed to have worked out all the bugs," Sgt. Mark Ford of the Dallas Police Department's airport unit said in a phone interview.
Under the old system, the police and fire department couldn't talk with each other by radio, Ford said.
"Now you can push a key on your cellphone and talk to me on a walkie-talkie regardless of what device you have," he said. "Even with a laptop, you can talk to somebody on a radio.
"They are really making leaps and bounds and accomplishing things we've never been able to do."
Ford added that buying all-new radios that could be compatible would cost "millions upon millions of dollars."
Even so, he said concerns remain about the new linkage system. Chief among them is the possibility of chaos with so many first responders joining a single conversation in the midst of a major emergency, he said.
"We have to practice with the system," Ford said.
Peter Erickson, a CoCo vice president who has focused on selling the software to the federal government, acknowledged that "it will take a little more time to gain the trust" of first responders.
Another major challenge will be persuading more of the decentralized first responder agencies to join.
Erickson argued that his company offers an attractive approach, since it doesn't require the costly replacement of radios. Instead, each agency would pay a one-time cost for setting up the system and a service fee of $18,000 a year.
Department of Homeland Security officials avoided praising any particular solution to the interoperability problem.
"The issue is not technology," said Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the department. "Ultimately the issue is jurisdictional and cultural."
Citing the 80,000 jurisdictions nationwide, the spokesman said, "What it comes down to is getting communities and their first responders to agree."
Knocke said that 10 cities with the highest threat levels now have interoperability for joint command centers, if not for individual police, firefighters and other emergency personnel.
The 10 cities are New York, Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Houston, Jersey City, N.J., Miami and Boston.