Friday, March 09, 2007

FRC Report on Interoperable Communications

The First Response Coalition (FRC) has a new report on the status of first-responder interoperable communications. The FRC looked at state programs for interoperable communications and found some success stories. The study has three main findings:

1. Funding is still the major hurdle to achieve interoperability, with creative state financing limited by insufficient federal commitments.
2. The numerous effective state programs illustrate an opportunity to improve the existing first responder communications system and upgrade networks with new technologies without drastically reallocating spectrum.
3. As various states pursue innovative and unique tactics, there is a distinct need for adherence to technical standards that better ensure equipment employed across jurisdictions is compatible.
Note: Another recent study also found that state and local governments are bearing more of the weight for financing the new systems, as indicated in this post. But DHS' baseline survey of disaster communications, released in December 2006, suggested that "governance" was the biggest hurdle to interoperable communications. (See this post.)

The FRC highlights the efforts of Colorado, Nevada, and Utah to create interoperable systems for first responders. Innovative practices were also found in Indiana, Texas, Washington DC, South Carolina, and Virginia. (The "governance" element was highlighted in Virginia.)

The FRC calls for more clarity and financial support from DHS:
Achieving full communications interoperability will require federal funding and leadership, state inventiveness and innovation, and local cooperation and coordination.
Cost is a considerable factor. States are not capable of providing funding at the levels required for full nationwide interoperability:
According to a recent survey conducted by the National Emergency Management Association, achieving statewide interoperable communications for first responders will cost approximately $7 billion. Even with anticipated increases in spending, it is unlikely that states will have sufficient funds to achieve full interoperability in the near future.
In response to the financial shortfall, some states have gotten creative with their financing:
Rather than relying solely on federal grants or appropriations, selected governors and state legislatures have developed unique financing arrangements for public safety communications.
  • In Minnesota, the state Department of Transportation financed half the cost of a state/local shared communications infrastructure, using general obligation bonds and money from the state’s highway fund.
  • Indiana maintains its Project Hoosier SAFE-T system through a $1.25 surcharge on transactions at the state Department of Motor Vehicles, which yields $15 million per year.
  • The Michigan state legislature approved funding to build a statewide communications system and promised to fund all equipment upgrades to attract local users who otherwise could not afford to connect to the network.
The three main case studies that the FRC features are Colorado, Nevada, and Utah. Following are a few highlights, starting with Colorado:
Funded through a state “Public Safety Trust Fund” as well as federal Homeland Security grants, the Colorado Statewide Digital Trunked Radio System (DTR) provides a seamless statewide wireless communications system. The network enables direct communications between all local governments that choose to (and can afford to) participate in the program.

A combination of state, federal, tribal and local government agencies currently use the system, totaling 600 individual agencies and over 27,000 subscriber units/radios. By the end of 2007, DTR Project Manager Mike Borrego estimates the network will cover 95% of Colorado’s geographic area, with over 30,000 radios in use.

The non-profit Consolidated Communications Network of Colorado (CCNC) was created in 2002 to manage the Statewide Digital Trunked Radio Network. The CCNC’s governing body is comprised of the agencies that participate on the digital trunked radio system. Representatives from each of the state’s five radio regions comprise the CCNC board. The governance model was developed with assistance from DHS/SAFECOM materials. Various subcommittees meet monthly to provide specialized guidance and insight as it relates to system performance and operational guidelines. In an interview with the FRC, Borrego said, “No matter if you’re a five-man department or a 500-man department, you get an equal voice in the management of the system.”
The Utah Communications Area Networks (UCAN) is a public safety communications system that supports 15,000 users and 120 separate state, local and federal government agencies. Coverage has been achieved in 11 counties, constituting 85% of the state’s population, and a merger is underway with the Salt Lake County System. According to UCAN Executive Director Steven Proctor, the UCAN system took only 36 months to build, but it took six years of hard work, political compromise, and negotiations before the system equipment order was ever signed.

Today, the next generation of public safety communications interoperability in Utah is being developed with the Utah Wireless Integrated Network (UWIN) project. The state has placed a high priority on effective governance within the UWIN system.

By the end of 2004, UWIN had implemented mobile voice and data networks that allowed the state Law Enforcement System (LES), State Radio System (SRS), the Utah National Guard, and UCAN to interface seamlessly.
Nevada’s statewide public safety communications system is a hybrid public/private radio network used by all state agencies including the highway patrol, Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT), the state university system, and by Nevada Power and Sierra Pacific Power. The two utility companies formed a partnership with the state and all have joint ownership of the network.

The Nevada interoperability plan connected the 4 major trunked public safety communications systems into a single “virtual” system. The system is in operation in all parts of the state, with varying levels of participation. The Las Vegas area is described as “saturated,” with any public safety entity in the metropolitan area able to use the system.

The Regional Communications Interoperability Pilot (RCIP) conducted by SAFECOM and the State of Nevada in 2006 contributed to the state’s ongoing interoperability success. The RCIP’s aim is “to improve emergency response communications capabilities by developing tools and best practices that states and communities across the nation can employ.” Over 14 months, local, tribal, state and federal emergency responders met with policymakers and other relevant stakeholders to refine the State’s existing statewide interoperability plan and strengthen planning processes.

1 comment:

KB3JUV said...

Good article. I think the biggest issue with Interoperable communications is knowledge. Many of these states have tons of different systems with no real idea how to get them to talk to each other. Sure we have the "black boxes" to deploy on the event of an emergency to patch unlike radios together but we're talking about day to day communications. I personally believe that the communications divisions need to start looking into temporary plans in promoting this while they wait for this enormous funding that they think they will need.