In today’s multiagency environment, first-responder mission-essential tasks have greatly expanded, making the need for a robust communications system capable of operating with other communications systems of various types and configurations a high-priority consideration. Simply speaking, communications interoperability means nothing more and nothing less than the ability of two or more dissimilar communications systems to exchange information when and where it is needed. The lack of interoperability is in fact one of the more difficult problems facing the U.S. first-responder community.
Fortunately, recent technological advances have reduced and may soon eradicate this problem, thanks primarily to the advent of new systems such as the TRP/ACU 1000. There are now more than 17,000 law-enforcement agencies of various sizes throughout the United States. An estimated 95 percent or so have fewer than 100 officers assigned. There also are over 35,000 fire and emergency medical agencies nationwide. Because of the non-standardized and wide variety of communications systems used by these agencies, interoperability is very difficult to achieve. For example, public safety radio frequencies can vary from low-band Very High Frequency 25-50 MHz to 806-869 MHz, and there is no standardized and affordable radio available to operate across the entire range of frequencies encountered.
No Silver Bullet, But a Very Good Start
Because of the wide variety of communications equipment used by the first-responder community, the ability of local, state, and federal law-enforcement agencies and other first-responder units to communicate effectively with one another during a large-scale natural or man-made disaster is always difficult and sometimes impossible. Use of the TRP/ACU 1000 – developed by JPS Communications Inc., a subsidiary of the Raytheon company – may not be the “Silver Bullet” that solves the entire problem, but it seems to be at least an impressive start, if the experience of the Derry Township Police Department (in Dauphin County in South Central Pennsylvania) is a typical example.
An exceptionally versatile communications system, the TRP 1000/ACU-1000 was designed and built specifically to provide interconnections between different communication systems. As a bonus, it also can be configured to meet most telephone and radio interface applications. Suitable for various systems and a variety of modes – e.g., high-frequency, land mobile radio, and Satellite Communications (SATCOM) – it is highly expandable as a radio branch exchange.
The ACU-1000 Modular Interconnect System not only is able to simultaneously cross-band two or more dissimilar radio networks, it also is fitted with a Gateway Switch and can connect a radio network to a telephone line or SATCOM system, or even create a conference call between several different radio networks and a caller on the telephone line. An ACU-1000 operator can use the HSP-2 module – i.e., the Handset/Speaker/Prompt module contained within the ACU 1000 system – to monitor or establish an interconnection with any or all of the communications systems wired to the rear panel of the ACU-1000. The system, which is reported by the manufacturer to be able to interconnect up to 24 devices, also provides both voice and tone prompts to help users take full advantage of all of the system’s capabilities.
Figure #1 provides a front view of the ACU 1000. Depending on user requirements, each of the 12 interface module plug-in slots depicted in Figure #1 may contain a module that will connect a communications system to the rest of the ACU-1000 network; for operational purposes, each plug-in slot is given an extension number, from 01 through 12.
Shock-Resistant and Mobile Versatility The TRP/ACU 1000 system shown in Figures #2 and #3 includes not only the ACU 1,000 but also five VHF and five UHF radios. Figure #2 shows the TRP/ACU 1000 in a mobile configuration, and mounted in shock-resistant cabinets; and Figure #3 shows a fixed-site configuration, similar to that used, for example, in a county emergency management center.
The deployment options for the TRP/ACU 1000, users say, are virtually endless. Some jurisdictions have mounted the system in vehicles or facilities ranging from a converted ambulance to a dedicated communications trailer to a tactical command vehicle (converted from a mobile home – but a custom-made vehicle can be ordered from the JPS Company). It should be noted, though, that if the communications system is mounted on a trailer a prime mover will be needed to take it from one place to another as the need arises.
Among the most useful subsystems in each configuration is a dedicated power supply – which would be used not only to power the communications system but also to ensure that the ambient temperature is kept constant (because the stress of using the TRP/ACU 1000 in extremely hot weather could adversely affect its performance). In any climate, though, the system generates a good deal of heat that also can affect its performance if not closely monitored.
A High-Value Life-Saving Demonstration
Regardless of its configuration and/or the deployment options available, the potential value of the TRP/ACU 1000 communications system to the first-responder community would be difficult to exaggerate – as was demonstrated during a recent tornado emergency in south central Pennsylvania during which the ACU 1000 not merely “performed as advertised,” according to Lieutenant Patrick O’Rourke, Operations Division Commander of the Derry Township Police Department, but allowed local and state police, and other first-responder units, to communicate with one another during the entire operation, adding immeasurably to their ability to act almost immediately when tornado winds threatened to devastate the Halifax area of south central Pennsylvania causing extensive property damage as well as personal injury.
The acquisition of the ACU 1000 required a lot of effort on the part of several forward-looking officials, O’Rourke also commented. The command and control van and the entire ACU 1000 configuration cost approximately $500,000. The police department had to submit a contract bid through a local state task force, which allocated some of the scarce federal funding available to complete the procurement Lower Cost, Almost Equal Capability In addition to designing, developing, and building the larger TRP/ACU 1000, the Raytheon Corporation also has led the effort to develop and deploy a smaller and less expensive version of a similar piece of communications equipment that gives users much of the same technology incorporated in the larger ACU 1000. On 15 May 2006, Raytheon announced the introduction of the ACU-M, shown here in Figures #4 and #5.
The ACU-M – a compact piece of communications equipment fitted with audio ports, several voice-over internet protocol ports, and a headset port – is particularly recommended for the quick and easy establishment of a command post at a disaster site. Among the system’s more attractive characteristics are a self-testing diagnostic capability and the ability to run from a battery, a twelve-volt outlet, or an AC power supply. In addition, thanks to its digital processing capability, the unit can interconnect radios in any band, including VHF, HF, and UHF. Moreover, because of its compact size, the ACU-M can be deployed almost anywhere – in a variety of configurations. From the first-responders’ point of view, it seems that the needs of the front-line units are finally receiving some much needed attention, at least in the communications area, and that the improved systems now being fielded will help them carry out their assigned tasks more quickly, more safely, and much more efficiently in the future.
Brent C. Bankus retired as a promotable Lieutenant Colonel from the Army National Guard Active Guard Reserve Program with over 25 years service. His military career, beginning in 1979 as an Armor/Cavalry officer encompassed command and staff positions in the U.S. Army, Army National Guard, and the Army Reserve. He has served in assignments within the United States and Germany as well as missions to Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, Sinai, Eritrea, Guam and Hawaii. He has a BS from Bloomsburg University, PA, an MS in Information Management from Strayer University, VA and an MS in Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps Command and General Staff Colleges and the U.S. Army War College. He is a consultant with Resource Consultants, Inc.