Wireless Challenge Remains After 9/11

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says that it has made "significant advances" in making emergency service radios interoperable on this fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The DHS, however, adds that true interoperability requires "a long term, continuing investment and cannot be solved by a one time, band-aid allocation of resources."

Better radio interoperability -- enabling police, fire and other emergency wireless systems to be "talk" together at a moment's notice -- was one of the principal recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. "Congress should support pending legislation [The HERO Act] which provides for the expedited and increased assignment of radio spectrum for public safety purposes," the Commission said in its final report in the summer of 2004. The Homeland Emergency Response Operations Act (H.R. 1425) calls for Congress set a deadline of Dec. 31, 2006, for the Federal Communications Commission to provide public safety agencies sole access to spectrum currently used for TV broadcasts.

The DHS, however, says that spectrum is not the whole answer to the question of interoperability. The department has established a program called the Safecom Interoperability Continuum that has identified five major factors needed to ensure radio interoperability: Governance, standard operating procedures, technology, training and exercises, and usage.

"All of these factors must be met to achieve interoperability," says Christopher Kelly, a spokesperson for the DHS. According to Kelly, so far, over $2 billion of federal money has been used for interoperable communications programs.

During the 2004 financial year, Safecom led RapidCom 1, an effort to ensure that the top 10 high-threat urban areas -- Boston, Chicago, Houston, Jersey City, Los Angeles, Miami, the National Capital Region, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco -- are able to establish communications at the command level within one hour of a major event. This financial year, Safecom and DHS’s Office of Grants and Training launched RapidCom 2 to speed-up the development of a Tactical Interoperability Communication Plans (TICP) in 75 high-threat regions, including past and present Urban Area Security Initiative regions. At the end of RapidCom 2, each region will have an approved TICP and will hold an exercise to test the plan.

The DHS has also carried out a survey -- The National Interoperability Baseline Survey -- to measure the current state of interoperable communications capabilities. Some 22,400 emergency response agencies took part in the survey, a report on which will be released this fall. "The survey will provide the first quantitative assessment of the Nation’s emergency response interoperable communications capabilities," says the DHS's Kelly.

The DHS plans to use the survey and the Interoperability guidelines as a measure of how far work on radio interoperability has advanced. It is not, however, setting a timetable for interoperability or mandating standards that emergency responders in different regions of the country have to adhere to. The agency has been developing a suite of standards under the heading Project (P25) but the DHS spokesman says that they are not always "affordable or suitable for some agencies" and that interim solutions may be better for some.

Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) among others has been working on technology that may help towards interoperability between currently incompatible radio systems. The Cisco IP Interoperability and Collaboration System (IPICS) is currently being used by a "number of government/public safety customers," according to spokeswoman for the company. The firm hopes to start announcing its customers within a few weeks.

Meanwhile, Verizon Wireless and Cyren Call Communications Corp. are both calling on the FCC to let them use 700MHz TV spectrum to build public safety networks. (See Spectrum for Safety: Is There Enough? and Cyren Call, M2Z Waiting on the FCC .) The DHS, however, says that such initiatives would only address part of the problem.

"The proposals by Verizon and Cyren Call are for national broadband networks in the 700 MHz band based on a public-private partnership model," the department's spokesman tells Unstrung "If these proposals are successful, they may eventually impact public safety wireless communications; however, the majority of mission critical voice operations still reside on privately owned public safety land mobile radio systems. Interoperability and operability are still a challenge for these systems."

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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