The use of bridging devices to tie together two or more wireless communications networks started over 15 years ago, thanks in large part to initiatives taken by the U.S. military and various non-military federal agencies looking for ways to provide and/or improve the basic communications needed for field operations that require several units or agencies to coordinate their activities.
The first networks were somewhat complicated to set up, were not user-friendly, and usually required a dedicated technician to ensure they were managed and used correctly. The synergistic advantages provided by temporarily combining two or more radio networks involved in the same project soon became obvious, though, and the nation’s technical community began to respond. Today, there are dozens of computer-aided gateways designed to provide a range of interoperability options by means of digital signal processing systems with varying features and functions.
In a public-safety communications system today a gateway is a network element capable of interfacing with other disparate networks to bridge protocols and talk paths in order to ensure an orderly combined response to a critical event. The continuity provided by the delivery of vital services during any tragic occurrence – whether a serious highway accident or a fire on the county line or a catastrophic incident such as a hurricane or an act of terrorism – is helped immensely by the availability of an efficient communications system.
Planning, Programming, and Training
A communications gateway must be able to facilitate well-organized communications between several agencies and/or political jurisdictions that must be in close and constant communication with one another to function properly in times of emergency. However, like any other technological device that a first responder can use, the gateway has to be preplanned or preprogrammed to meet the needs of a specific foreseeable critical event, and then rehearsed – through multi-agency drills and exercises. Typically, any agency or jurisdiction is involved in a number of mutual-aid events that might occur numerous times during the course of a month or year. The larger events are almost always much more difficult to prepare for; however, with proper planning they can be handled in an effective and efficient way.
This new technology tool can be either an “enabling” implement or a “disabling” one – depending, usually, on how well an organization or agency has been trained. The three most common causes of gateway failure are: (a) A lack of training, which can result in the device sitting on the shelf; (b) A lack of disciplined use when deployed – which means, for example, that several people might be talking at the same time, causing so much confusion that no one can effectively listen; and (c) A lack of stewardship, which is caused by not properly maintaining the equipment, sometimes rendering it useless when it is most needed.
There are three primary types of gateway systems now commonly used.
“Portable mounted” – i.e., capable of being carried in a suitcase, for example; these systems have limits on both functionality and range, but may be used for rapid-deployment situations;
“Mobile mounted” – carried in a command vehicle fitted with antennas that help extend the radio footprint; these can be feature rich; and
“Fixed” – these usually are installed at higher-power base stations in a strategic location to provide maximum capabilities that can be remotely controlled and dynamically reconfigured for a specific type of incident.
It is important to recognize that interoperability, or the lack thereof, is not basically a technology issue but, rather, an operational and political issue that can be overcome through interagency agreements, joint classroom training, and joint field-readiness exercises as well as actual operations. Regardless of the feature sets available and/or the robustness of the specific gateway system, training is the most significant factor involved in the use of this still growing and increasingly important technology.