A Fresh Solution for the First Responder IssueMonday, March 19, 2007
There is no doubt that our first responders are in a bind and that something needs to be done to help them solve both their day-to-day and major incident communications problems. The term "interoperability" has been tossed around ever since 9/11 and some progress has been made toward this goal. However, there are still significant technology issues, matters of funding and, of course, politics to be resolved.
In recent months, we have heard from a number of players with ideas about how to solve the problems. Each has some merit, and each has a self-serving element. Those not involved in wireless don't understand why things cannot simply work the way they should. Why can't a fireman in Dallas talk to a policeman in Boston? The politicians can do that today on their cell phones.
Being able to talk from Dallas to Boston is not the issue. What is at issue is that during an incident, all first responders on the scene need to be able to communicate within the established command structure that grows in real time as an incident grows. It would be wonderful if everyone on a scene had access to a common radio channel. During 9/11, being able to make an announcement to everyone in the buildings at once could, perhaps, have saved lives. But even if everyone on a scene has access to the same channels, the sheer volume of radio traffic and interference created by so many people trying to deliver messages would render communications totally useless. So there must also be a command-and-control system to manage the traffic. If you want to better understand the amount of interference that is created on channels without any command and control structure, dust off your old CB radio and tune to Channel 19 or 15 and listen to how many people are trying to hold conversations and how chaotic it can become.
The politicians who are driving for interoperability solutions don't think about how when they make a call on their wireless device it only goes to the person they dialed. They don't understand that this is not the way first responder communications need to work and that public safety communications systems aren't like commercial wireless phone systems. Commercial networks and wireless phones are probably the worst thing that could have happened to public safety communications. This is not because they are bad, it is because most of the people making the rules and spending the money only understand commercial wireless -- the world of private two-way communications systems is foreign to them.
Commercial wireless systems are fully interoperable and your phone number is all I need to know to call you, text you or even send you a picture in near-real time. The problem is that if I don't know your phone number, I can't find it by calling information so I can't contact you at all. Similarly, in the world of first responders using two-way radio systems, I can put out a call on a channel and ask for information from all of those listening, but if you are on a different channel, you won't hear my call. That is why, at a command center at the scene or back at the main center, it's someone's job to keep a record of what radio channels are being used and monitor them to keep track of all of the equipment. Usually, this type of tracking doesn't begin until well after the first assessment of an incident and the first assignment of actions to be taken. To avoid confusion on the scene, the incident commander gives the orders and makes sure all of the resources are in the correct place, doing the right job.
Where it gets tricky is when other agencies are called and start arriving on the scene. They normally check in with the incident commander, and this is where the issue of interoperability kicks in. If the units responding to the scene have radios on different radio bands and different channels, it is almost impossible for them to be deployed and still remain in touch with the incident commander. If they are in range of their own radio system, they might be able to contact their own dispatch center, which will relay traffic, but if they are out of their own coverage area and don't have the right channels in their radios, the radios are rendered useless.
Every police officer in the country doesn't need to be able to talk to every other police officer, fireman or EMS . But there is the need for the appropriate federal, state and local agency personnel to be able to coordinate during an incident. To this end, some forms of local interoperability have been in place for a number of years. For example, if two police cars from different towns are involved in chasing the same car, there is a good chance they will be able to talk car-to-car to each other, but there is also a chance they will have to go through their dispatchers to relay information from one to the other.
The only true solution to first responder interoperability is to have contiguous spectrum and build radios capable of being used by these agencies on a standalone basis but with the ability to communicate cross-agency when needed, on a controlled basis via the command structure. Today, new systems are being built that cover entire regions, some even entire states, with common radios and the ability to talk agency-to-agency. A number of solutions are available for temporary interoperability in times of major incidents including using IP connections at a dispatch center or in the field to tie a number of radio channels in diverse portions of the spectrum together into a single radio channel. While effective, this is a poor use of resources because a single voice conversation will tie up all of the channels that are connected via the IP links.
What Can Be Done?
Everyone has his/her own ideas about how to "fix" the problem of first responder interoperability and we can certainly understand what needs to happen. There are thousands of examples of the problem, say a helicopter flying over a rescue team on a roof during a flood and not being able to communicate with the rescue team so valuable minutes that could cost lives are lost. We need nationwide interoperability, but on a local level. We need a solid communications link between any first responders dispatched to an incident, be they from a neighboring town, another state or the federal government.
What is being done in the short term is good, and progress is being made on the local level. But if Washington wants to focus on interoperability, it needs to realize that what we really need is a nationwide plan to provide for regional first responder interoperability; not duplication of capabilities provided by commercial wireless operators.
Here are my ideas. Not all of them are new, but all of them make sense:
A nationwide, private Internet IPV6 first responder network. This network would tie all dispatch and Public Safety Answering Points together with all local, state and federal emergency services locations. It would be used during normal times to provide better communications between agencies on a local, state, regional and federal basis and could be used for alerts. In times of major incidents, it would become the backbone for command-and-control as well as data links that need to be established and it would be used to tie first responder channels together as needed for communications links.
A nationwide but regional radio system on 700-MHz spectrum. This network would employ commercial technologies for data and VoIP and be combined with P25 voice for local channels and voice dispatch. (P25 is the most prevalent technology in the United States that supports simplex/tactical channels though another technology could be used.) This network would include a number of simplex/tactical channels for on-scene incident use. The amount of spectrum required for this network would be determined by an organization that would review the system and determine the spectrum requirements over the next ten years on a worst-case basis. Commercial-use spectrum could be made available for this system for secondary and administrative traffic only and on a for-pay, no-priority basis.
A common set of radios. Both mobile and handheld radios, all identical to each other, would include all of the 700-MHz channels and first responder channels on 800 MHz. The radios could be built by several vendors but built to a common standard to be identical. The radios would be used by federal, state, regional and local entities on a daily basis, as they could be afforded and integrated into the systems. Channel selection would be available both on the radio and over the air. If units were responding to a major incident, the radio could be programmed over the air to be on the proper channels when the unit arrived on the scene. All agencies on other portions of the spectrum could purchase these radios as second radios for their vehicles or remain part of the network using the IP backbone and transition to this system over time.
Network construction. The network would be constructed and maintained by a combination of public/private sector organizations. Commercial operators that participate in this network could be given tax incentives or some other form of incentive for providing funding, tower space and other services. The federal government would fund most of the project with proceeds from the 700-MHz auction. (I know, it has already spent this money a hundred times over, so it will spend it one more time.) Each city and region would contribute as appropriate to the construction and building of this network. In rural areas, commercial network operators would be given incentives to build out this network and would be permitted to build their own network using the same locations, towers and as much shared infrastructure as possible without compromising the integrity of the first responders' network. Rural network operators and Internet service providers could be permitted resale rights on the commercial portion of this network in order to help defray system costs.
Funding would come from federal funds, commercial network operator contributions, state and local funds, a one-time tax on each commercial wireless phone ($8 per phone would raise $20 billion). The e911 wireless tax could be raised a few cents for ongoing costs, tax incentives could be offered to major corporations that contribute to the first responder network and other sources could be identified.
These are the basics of my idea. I have worked out some of the details but not all. I believe this plan could be implemented and carried out over five to ten years and, while it may not cover every interoperability situation, it will go a long way toward solving many of the problems and providing a much-needed boost in equipment and capabilities for the first responder community.
I expect a lot of email telling me my plan is flawed in one aspect or another, and I am sure there are some issues I have missed or have not presented here. However, this may be the first plan offered by a neutral third party who works with both commercial companies and first responders. I have nothing to gain by putting this proposal forward. I am simply offering up what seem to be logical suggestions to help solve the first responder communications issues. Moreover, I want to encourage commercial wireless operators and first responders to work together for the benefit of all.
Andrew M. Seybold