Articles

New York Statewide Wireless Interoperable Communications Network Refocused on Regional Systems

New technology, federal stimulus funding, new governance structure with more first responder participation, recognition of regional deployments and calls for regional and state cooperation reinvigorate new push for statewide wireless interoperable communications network.

by / April 5, 2009

Photo: Harry J. Corbitt, superintendent of the New York State Police, and state CIO Melodie Mayberry-Stewart will co-chair the Statewide Interoperability Advisory Council, formerly the Statewide Wireless Network. / Credit: New York State OFT/CIO

New York state spent the second half of the Bush Administration and over $100 million developing a statewide wireless network it was hoped would provide public safety and public service agencies across the state with interoperable communications only to go back to the drawing board earlier this month.

The network, which was expected to cost $2 billion, was the largest IT project in the state's history. The state Office for Technology awarded the contract to build the system to M/A-COM in April 2004. After problems with several rounds of testing the state officially terminated its contract with M/A-COM in January of this year.

During a testing period in November 2008 the network had 14.5 cumulative hours of down time, which is well above the U.S. standard of just 52.6 minutes per year. Nearly a third of the radios had malfunctioned, a spokeswoman for OFT told Government Technology in January.

And so the New York State's Statewide Interoperability Advisory Council met in late March to discuss the path forward. State CIO Melodie Mayberry-Stewart announced the appointment of Harry J. Corbitt, superintendent of the New York State Police as co-chairman of a refocused advisory council, and representatives of first responders provided their perspectives on moving forward.

A revised governance structure for the advisory committee will include an implementation steering committee composed of first responders who will be very involved in the deployment of the systems, Mayberry-Stewart said. The advisory board will also oversee the award of Public Safety Interoperable Communications grants, said Col. Steven Cuomaletti with the New York State Police. He sees opportunities to optimize federal stimulus funds that are tied to interoperable communications at the state and local levels. The state is committed to being part of federal homeland security committees that set policies and make funding recommendations.

According to Tom Gallagher, interoperability project coordinator for the New York State Office of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Emergency Communications has allocated $400 million a year for competitive grants to be awarded in each of the next three years. Of that $1.2 billion in funding over three years, 80 percent of it will be awarded to counties and 20 percent will be awarded to states. "So the more regional programs you've got the better", he said.

"As appropriate and in line with guidelines from use of stimulus money from Washington we would at least like to look into broadband initiatives that have public safety implications and might relate to our interoperability goals and priorities," said Nancy Perry, acting statewide interoperability program director.

While officials acknowledged the setback which the termination of the contact with M/A-COM presented, they were also optimistic opportunities to utilize newer technology and improve governance of cross-jurisdictional communication and data sharing would come from it. For example, instead of building a statewide communications network and offering to connect counties and other local governments to it, the state would work to facilitate the development of regional networks that connected groups of partnering counties thereby improving its usefulness.

Several counties had no desire to participate in the statewide wireless network, according to Perry. "The new strategic road map we are pursuing de-emphasizes the one-size-fits-all notion and envisions an interconnected system of systems," she said.

"Under the state's plan up until this point, local service providers would only be participating in the state plan on a voluntary basis, which could turn out to be a serious flaw in the overall

plan," said John Grebert, executive director of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police. "It could lead to the same types of communications problems that we saw back on September 11th--State agencies and some local or county entities not being able to talk to organizations that did not elect or arrange for access to the statewide system. What seems to be working better is for the state to participate in multi-county, regionally focused systems that will have the ability to communicate with one another during those times when it becomes necessary," he said.

"Two other reasons we should continue with this new regional approach: The major emergencies that have occurred around the state are far more regional in nature than they are statewide. Whether it's a plane crash in Eerie County, an ice storm in the Adirondacks or forest fires on Long Island these are all actual incidents that required a major commitment of resources. The public safety response was far more regional in nature. A regional radio network can handle these needs more directly with better local knowledge than a statewide system," he said.

Under this new model, the state would provide technical and financial assistance and the counties would build the systems, which the state would then be permitted to connect to. "In conjunction with the system of systems concept, we understand we need to maintain and upgrade aging state agency systems," Perry said. "We intend to support initiatives focused on maintenance and upgrade until a replacement vision is realized."

But not everyone was enthusiastic about the shift to a bottom-up approach. "The shift from a top-down to a bottom-up approach is certainly a very all-encompassing change which I think needs a lot of discussion. If we go to a bottom-up approach I believe and I'm afraid that the [volunteer emergency medical services community] will be lost in the shuffle." Yedidyah Langsam, a professor at Brooklyn College, said.

Mayberry-Stewart said the governance structure would contain both top-down oversight and bottom-up collaboration.

Governance is a major part of all of the homeland security programs now, Gallagher said. "Your governance has to be in place. If you do not have that, your applications are null and void from the beginning. That's why New York state has been fortunate to be chosen by the National Governors Association to be on that committee to form a template for the states," he said.

The state plans to use $50,000 it was awarded as part of being chosen by the NGA to conduct a symposium in June to discuss the issues of interoperability facing the states, counties and other local government jurisdictions. "It's not just radio communications from my perspective that we need to work on as a state, " Corbitt said, "There's also a data void."

Opportunities for Collaboration
Achieving communications and data interoperability across New York will be an arduous task, but not impossible, officials acknowledge. The meeting highlighted two examples of counties who have cooperated in setting up regional radio networks and the state and counties already have areas where they share resources. "For as long as I've been involved in law enforcement, criminal investigations have been conducted jointly by local, county and state police," Grebert said. "If you are local or a county police department with few specialized resources and you're faced with a complicated investigation of a serious crime, you're making a serious mistake if you don't request the assistance of the state police," he said. "The state police have become an excellent example of how a large state agency can make all their resources available to local agencies while asking for very little in return."

Meanwhile, Monroe and Onondaga counties have gone ahead and collaborated in building a regional radio network which officials see as a model for the

rest of the state. "The major question now becomes can a regional system operated by counties also handle the critical task of communications for state agencies," Grebert said. "And while the answer is certainly not simple, there are many indicators that they can," he said.

Grebert said the state and counties should look to examples of collaboration in the areas of training, homeland security, highway safety and the deployment of SWAT teams for inspiration as the drive for interoperable communications moves forward. "Local police and county sheriffs receive their training side-by-side and have been doing so for decades. It works very well and saves money," he said.

Grebert suggested state officials who may hesitate to participate in county systems may want to heed some of their own advice. "When the topic of high local property taxes is discussed, may state leaders point to the consolidation of smaller units of government into larger units of government as a solution to and as a way to save money," he said. "What we are suggesting here is somewhat of a reverse consolidation, but with the same goals in mind. Consolidate the state effort with all its resources into the regional projects that are clearly making progress with the end result being lower overall cost and earlier completion dates."

Monroe and Onondaga counties already dispatch state police and state park police. Grebert believed other state agencies are considering joining those projects as well.

"Some of the opportunities that we see in collaborating with the state is leveraging our new and existing tower sites that are currently being developed for not only our communications needs but broadband services throughout the state especially the rural areas," said Michael Allen, the director of the Oswego County E-911 public safety center.

"We believe that we can do this by leveraging these networks that are already built throughout the county including our microwave systems that connect, not only our sites and our perspective counties but also the interconnectability we plan to create in our consortium," Allen said.

Snapshot of County Activity
"There are existing trunk systems in Clinton, Genesee Suffolk and Tompkins counties. A number of counties have implemented new trunk radio systems including Nassau, the NYC DoIT, Onadaga County and Rocklin County are all implementing new trunk radio systems," Allen said.

A number of counties are in the procurement process for new trunk radio systems. Construction has already begun in Onondaga county. Madison county has already decided on a vendor. And the other two counties are in the process of procuring for communications equipment. And Oswego, Saratoga, Madison, Onondaga and Cayuga county have an RFP on the street to hire a consultant to help with the migration to the interoperable communications system,

In total, 19 of the 62 counties in the state are currently operating or plan to build trunked radio systems.

State Assistance Needed
"We're looking to the state to provide guidelines and assistance to the counties' use of UHF 700 and 800 MHz bandwidths for county systems," said John Balloni, commissioner of Onadaga County Department of Emergency Communications. "P25 equipment would allow us to interoperate across many jurisdictions providing coverage on VTAC, UTAC. 8TAC, the national interoperable channels."

"Onodaga County has built out the national operational channels in our system as a first step," he said. "We need to continue that build out in our five-county region. That will give us a first level of interoperability to be able to go from county to county and operate on those national interoperable channels," he said.

It is certainly fair to allow state agencies' talk groups access regional systems as it assists in their development of other state agencies' talk groups on these systems, he said.

"We believe the state can help

us encourage the development of regional consortiums," Balloni said. "We recognize in our five-county region that most often our need is to interoperate with each other. But certainly that need goes beyond our five county regional borders to the neighboring regions. We need to be able to interoperate with them."

Financial Assistance Needed

"We make no pretense. We come with our hand out. We know that we can benefit from the state's resources, from their technological expertise and their ability to help us build out and maintain these systems once they're built," Balloni said.

"We believe original SWN costs are reduced with the savings leveraged to counties in assisting to upgrades to their radio systems," he said. "The reality is that counties like Onondaga have already committed $34.7 million to a radio project."

BAlloni said county systems provide state agencies with more robust coverage than would have been available under the old network design. "County systems are designed for portable in-street coverage. Our system was designed at 95/95 meaning that portable coverage on the street and within buildings is going to be very robust throughout the system."

"State and county goals and objectives are aligned regarding public safety radio communication. They are aligned already. We want the same thing. Closest car concepts, closest first responder help to the scene. Improved interoperability between state and county agencies. Let's get us all on one system-one group of systems that can interoperate. "

Balloni is looking forward to working with the state and is confident the technology exists to marry regional systems but says counties need to develop them. The state can help encourage that. "Of course encouragement would include monetary and technical assistance. Grant assistance. Anything that could possibly be done to help us build this out," he said.

Meanwhile, Corbitt said a lesson can be learned from the adoption Compstat, the predictive policing model developed in New York City. "We really have to sit down and do an inventory of information as to where each county is," Corbitt said.

"The SAFECOM continuum dictates that the regional approach is the best approach for interoperable communications," Allen said. As counties consider their data needs "we believe there is an additional opportunity there to develop a statewide mobile data system for all emergency services throughout the state," he said. "We also believe this is an opportunity to connect our 911 centers, not only for radio and data but also for a number of state initiatives that are out there including the NYSPEN portal as well as other state initiatives for emergency communications as well as early notification, like our AAS system as an example."

Editor's Note: Shortly after the state terminated its contract with M/A-COM, the company filed suit claiming the state's mismanagement of the project, not M/A-COM, was at fault in the failure of the project. Among other claims, the company cites the state's efforts to shore up its budget with default payments available under the contract. The state's failure to get buy-in from local governments that wanted to use portable radios on a network designed for use with vehicle-mounted radios was also at fault, the company wrote in the filing.