Systems and Solutions - The Gateways to Interoperability

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, brought to light, in stark reality, one of the greatest problems facing public safety entities around the world – communications interoperability. Since 9/11 many jurisdictions have spent millions of dollars to upgrade communications systems with features that are designed to improve their ability to achieve that desired interoperability. Moreover, radio equipment manufacturers also seem to be speeding new equipment models to market with many high-tech features, and interoperability systems manufacturers also have rushed new products to the marketplace.

But with all the new products and systems hitting the market has real interoperability been achieved? The answer is both “yes” and “no.” “Yes,” because it is evident that systems can be made to talk to one another – and they are doing so with greater ease than ever before. But also “No,” because in many cases those systems require expensive intermediate solutions (also known as gateways). W. Christopher Boyd, a communications architect for Maryland-based systems integrator Incident Communications Solutions (ICS), said in an interview that interoperability solutions “are not necessarily interoperable with each other” – meaning that it may take more than one “gateway-type device” to link two disparate systems.

This cautionary note further complicates the issue of interoperability and adds both human and mechanical points of failure to an already complex situation. Moreover, because many agencies are solving their own interoperability needs at the agency level, the “interoperability gateway” of one jurisdiction may not be able to “talk” to a different type of system in another agency or neighboring jurisdiction – and, in fact, might actually prevent the incorporation of some of the advanced features that many end-users rely on. The same complication forces agencies to take a holistic view of the entire communications structure not only within their own agency but also within those agencies that border it either geographically or operationally. Many agencies are not currently able or willing to support that activity.

The Cellular Phone Protocol – A Viable Example?

APCO, the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, working in close cooperation with Project SAFECOM (the communications program of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Interoperability and Compatibility, or OIC), has been trying to create, among other things, a standard communications protocol.  The adoption of such a protocol would provide standard communications interoperability across most if not all platforms and would allow the equipment of all system manufacturers to be interoperable with one another.

Stephen P. Morgan, president of Incident Communications Solutions, likens APCO’s approach to the creation of a standardized protocol for the use of cellular telephones.  “No matter which cell-phone vendor a customer uses,” he points out, “it will communicate with any other cellular phones and landline systems. This same versatility needs to be applied to Public Safety Communication Systems.”

With jurisdictions purchasing new state-of-the-art radio equipment featuring such innovations as an over-the-air reprogramming capability, users might reasonably expect that those functions will be available to them regardless of the other factors involved in a specific incident. This is where the plot turns.  Because of the disparity in manufactured radio equipment, end users may well lose, during a major event, some if not all of the high-tech functionality that makes a particular radio system attractive to them. Although these devices have made some important strides toward interoperability, the integration of interoperability gateways into a system brings with it a double-edged sword.  One edge is the fact that the gateways do create other potential points of failure; another is that they require the end-user to remember what features do not work when the gateway is operational.  But, because the cost of buying new radio equipment is so astronomical, gateways are likely to remain necessary pieces of the overall interoperability puzzle for the foreseeable future.

Morgan also says that jurisdictions “need to have a clear understanding of what they need and what they are trying to accomplish, before venturing into the ‘gateway’ marketplace.”  For example, when considering an attractive new feature such as encryption, departments should make hard decisions about whether or not such a feature is both: (a) cost-effective; and (b) a valuable asset during a disaster mobilization when other jurisdictions are participating in the same event.

The Cost Factor and Other Complications

Some radio features can add hundreds of dollars to the cost of individual mobile and portable radios and thousands of dollars to the total cost of radio systems. Agencies need to ask themselves, therefore, if – while operating in an encrypted mode, for example – their communications will span disparate radio systems, including those equipped with gateway solution features.  If so, agencies need to be aware that their encrypted radio traffic may not be encrypted when it is passed, via a gateway, to a system that does not support encryption.

Today, special features in radio systems are passed in “sub-audible” tones. These tones, although they cannot be heard by the human ear, are picked up by the radio to control the special features. Each manufacturer handles the “sub-audible tone factor” differently, and this could cause difficulties in passing at least some of the sub-audible tones required for special features.

Morgan Wright of Cisco Systems suggested in a telephone interview that public safety agencies should adopt the principle of “Operability Before Interoperability.”  This means that agencies should consider filling their basic needs before seeking interoperability solutions. The concept is simple: If a communications system does not routinely provide the basic functionality needed during a disaster, interoperability solutions will not enhance the capabilities of that system.  In other words, a gateway will not provide any increase in functionality beyond what is already present in the system, except to allow more users to talk to one another. So the question becomes whether the basic functionality of a radio system meets the needs of the end-user during day-to-day operations and during major events.

Major Concerns for Radio and Gateway Purchasers

Wright also suggested that some of the jurisdictions that were offline during Hurricane Katrina did not have enough redundancy built into them, and thus were not able to provide even a basic communications capability.  Consequently, interoperability solutions would have done them no good. In short, although building in redundancy can be an expensive proposition, another basic question must be asked before making a decision based on that factor alone – namely, what is the cost of being offline until an agency’s or jurisdiction’s system can be redesigned and manufactured?  The answer to that question is especially important for what are called Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs). Planning also should take into consideration such related factors as system capacity and capabilities.

Morgan said he sees three situations in which redundancy and resiliency are critical: (1) When there is no infrastructure or it has somehow been destroyed; (2) When the capability of a system has been degraded; and (3) When the system’s capacity has been exceeded or saturated.

The key to “true interoperability” is using a standards-based approach that allows disparate systems – not only voice but data as well – to flow between systems in a structured and well-defined manner. Morgan and Wright both said they believe that the adoption of a standards-based Internet Protocol (IP) would be a large part of the answer for the foreseeable future.  A well-crafted IP would allow audio, video, and signals communications across a broad spectrum of IP-based platforms (telephones, cell phones, PCs, and/or network systems). By using the IP protocol, systems could be built with COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) equipment components, thus reducing the importance of the difficult cost factor.  In addition, the standardized IP protocol would encourage more competition among vendors, making it possible for purchasers to shop for exactly what they need, rather than basing their purchase decisions on cost and related factors rather than operational needs.

The First Regional IP-Based System

In October of 2006, M/A COM Inc., a subsidiary of Tyco Electronics, installed Phase I of a new P25-compliant [P25 refers to the public safety standards established for digital equipment and systems] IP-based radio system for the Department of Defense (DOD) in the National Capital Region (NCR).  The new DOD system – which supports 5,000 federal-agency personnel and has been expanded to include 58 NCR public safety agencies at an estimated cost of about $4.5 million – should reduce if not eliminate the need for at least some interoperability gateways; moreover, by using the M/A COM radio system special features such as encryption and remote reprogramming can remain fully functional during major incidents or events.

The question remains, though, whether the NCR’s new IP-based system will improve the region’s interoperability with non-NCR first responders – or, if not, whether other jurisdictions will be required to upgrade to IP-based systems in order to be able to operate routinely with the NCR on a daily basis.  This question becomes particularly important when one reviews the communications shortfalls in major disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 attacks, in both of which responders from throughout the country were called upon to provide assistance.

One very impressive cost figure frequently referred to when discussing the cost of achieving interoperability is $18 billion, a number projected in the 1998 PSWN (Public Safety Wireless Network) program’s Land Mobile Radio Replacement Cost Study.  That estimate includes the cost of replacing a huge number of radio systems across the country – but it does not include the cost of unexpected issues and problems that are likely to arise, such as resolving interference and perhaps saturation issues.

How to Get There From Here

On 18 July 2007, Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the creation of a Public Safety Interoperability Communications (PSIC) grant to help state and local firefighters, police, and other first responders improve the communications and coordination capabilities they would need during both natural and manmade disasters.

The key point to remember about this new $968 million funding stream is that it is intended to meet a “one-time” need. However, if the $18 billion PSWN estimate mentioned earlier is reasonably accurate, the $968 million PSIC grant would be a mere drop in the bucket. So yet another question arises: Where will local agencies get the additional funds they would still need? 

The P25 and similar IP-based protocols currently represent one of several more or less viable long-term solutions to the interoperability issue.  However, the cost of shifting all of the nation’s first responders to P25 or IP-based radio systems prohibits this solution from being a viable option for the near future.

At least some quick-fix interim solutions are possible, though, and would likely include a combination of new radios, gateway devices, and tactical bridges such as the ACU-1000 Modular Interconnect System, the Incident Commanders Radio Interface (ICRI), and/or the Motobridge IP Interoperable Dispatch Application. In addition, a functional national channel management plan is necessary to accomplish true national interoperability.

Gary Simpson

Gary Simpson is a 32-year veteran of the Annapolis Police Department who, after he retired (in the rank of captain), was hired back to serve as the emergency management director for the City of Annapolis. Two years later, he shifted back to the police department as director of domestic preparedness and in that post was responsible for the department’s anti- terrorism planning, technology management, and intelligence operations. He also has served in CID, the Arson & Explosives Unit, Public Affairs, Patrol Operations, Special Operations, SWAT, the White Collar/Fraud Crimes Unit, and Communications. He left the department earlier this year to start Simpson Security Strategies LLC, a security consulting company.



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