The 2014 APCO Public Safety Survey revealed that one of the biggest barriers to agencies achieving a next generation communications vision is lack of interoperability with other agencies, with 32 per cent of respondents citing this as a challenge. By Greg Bouwmeester, general manager business development, Motorola Solutions.
To achieve true interoperability, agencies need to agree how they will manage information flow and ensure that correct policies and procedures are in place. However, this article does not address these particular challenges and instead focuses on overcoming some of the technological barriers.
Interoperability means agencies being able to share information when needed across their disparate networks. But it means more to public safety than simply ensuring the capabilities we have today are shared across agencies, geographies and technologies. It’s about realising entirely new ways of connecting critical resources when needed to extend and enhance operational capabilities for better public safety outcomes.
There are a number of reasons why interoperability between agencies is highly desirable. Interoperability enables:
- a coordinated response across critical resources: local, neighbouring, state and federal agencies
- the inclusion of additional second responders, such as utilities companies;
- the sharing of information from a wide variety of inputs creating a common operating picture to enable better command and control;
- increased capability and reach of communications by drawing on the full advantage of existing networks and new technologies; and
- increasing diversity of access for critical voice and data, leveraging public and private networks and applications.
Natural disasters in Queensland, Western Australia and Victoria have reinforced the need for increased interoperability between public safety agencies in Australia. After Black Saturday the Bushfire Commission in 2010 recommended “greater interoperability, and a strengthened capacity to provide an integrated response,” among other measures.1
Where are we today?
As recently as November 2014, in the Australian Government response to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement report: Spectrum for public safety mobile broadband, the government acknowledged that “although the states and territories separately establish, fund and operate their emergency services, it is in Australia’s interest that those emergency services are, where possible, fully interoperable.”2
While there is evidence that some individual agencies and states are making progress3, there is still much to do.
What can be done now?
However, solutions exist today that will enable interoperability while longer term strategies continue to be developed.
Off-the-shelf standards-based solutions
For customers who have already invested in a Project 25 (P25) digital radio network, off-the-shelf standards-based solutions are available. RF inter subsystem interface (ISSI) is a non-proprietary interface that enables different P25 networks to connect with each other, enabling users on these different networks to communicate. ISSI connectivity can extend coverage area by connecting networks in different geographical locations or where there is operational overlap. This capability is important for public safety emergency services providing assistance in other jurisdictions during an emergency or incident.
A number of agencies in Australia have trialled and deployed ISSI solutions, while other agencies have specified ISSI as a requirement for the build-out of their new network in order to facilitate interoperability and provided the flexibility to interface their networks to a range of other solutions.
Extending radio to IP networks
Alternatively, there are other products in the market capable of seamlessly integrating networks together.
Over the top push-to-talk solutions provide the opportunity to extend existing radio to IP networks including wireless broadband. MSI’s WAVETM Work Group Communications is a communications interoperability and broadband push-to-talk (PTT) solution that delivers real-time voice securely between devices across different networks. From two-way radios to smart phones, laptops to landlines, tablets to rugged handhelds, users can employ the devices they already have and the networks to which they are already subscribed. The WAVETM solution enables PTT with teams and individuals both inside and outside of their communication network.
The ability of WAVETM to bridge and unite radios and other devices, regardless of technology, manufacturer, frequency or operator enables the effective coordination of an emergency response among many different organisations.
The case study of Washington State’s Emergency Management Division (EMD)
demonstrates the effective use of WAVETM
technology in public safety. EMD oversees public safety operations and coordinates emergency and disaster response across more than 70,000 square miles of land in the US state of Washington. This vast reach means that emergency response often involves a large number of disparate organisations, including more than 50 public agencies as well as tribal entities, cities, towns and counties. EMD needed a communications solution that would provide a high degree of interoperability, allowing users on a wide range of devices and networks — smart phones, landlines and land mobile radio (LMR) systems broadcasting on myriad frequencies — to communicate with each other under the most stressful of emergency circumstances.
Using the WAVETM Dispatch Communicator, the EMD is able to manage its entire statewide network from 14 industry-standard laptop PCs, linked via the state’s existing communications networks. While the EMD’s communications are based primarily out of its Emergency Operations Centre located in western Washington, its deployment of WAVETM allows for full dispatch functionality from anywhere in the state.
“Our disaster-planning scenarios include a catastrophic Cascadia earthquake,” says Roy Benavente, who manages the network for the EMD. “In this type of scenario, redundancy and mobility of our emergency communications system becomes a primary concern. With WAVETM, we’re able to easily relocate our dispatch operations and communications management to another part of the state, essentially at the push of a button. That kind of functionality wasn’t an option with older technology. WAVETM truly modernised our operations in that regard.”
Both solutions have their place
Both solutions have their place in the public safety landscape. An open standards-based interface such as ISSI gives agencies the richest feature set in linking P25 systems together, while WAVETM enables user without access to P25 network to securely interoperate over a wide range of communication networks.
Interoperability is vital to ensure the engagement of all stakeholder agencies to achieve a coordinated and effective response to emergencies as well as improving agency interactions. Solutions are available today that address these needs.
Roy Benavente of EMD, sums it up: “To put it simply, public safety agencies are a few mouse clicks away from communicating with any other agency across the state.”
1. 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, Final Report, July 2010, p 18
2. Australian Government response to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement report: Spectrum for public safety mobile broadband, Nov 2014