Public-Safety Interoperability and Digital Cities: What Are the Requirements?

The inaugural Public-Safety Interoperability Roundtable at the 15th W2i Digital Cities Convention in Washington, DC, (December 11-12, 2007) provided an early view onto emerging policy requirements for interoperable public-safety networks.

by / February 11, 2008
Previous Next


Photo: The collapse of Interstate 35W near downtown Minneapolis, taken about an hour after the disaster.

The inaugural Public-Safety Interoperability Roundtable at the 15th W2i Digital Cities Convention in Washington, DC, (December 11-12, 2007) provided an early view onto emerging policy requirements for interoperable public-safety networks. Ken Boley, Director of Wireless and Public Safety Programs in the Office of the District of Columbia's CTO, moderated the Roundtable. He kicked off the discussion with an update of the National Capital Region's efforts.

Interoperability Across Jurisdictions
After September 11, the National Capital Region, with its 21 jurisdictions, became a focal point of the interoperability discussion. It is one of the most complex interoperability environments in the country and includes the District, Loudoun, Fairfax, Arlington, Prince William Counties and Alexandria City in Virginia, as well as Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland.

Today, the District of Columbia is transitioning from its Wireless Accelerated Responder Network (WARN), a successful pilot for public safety, to a new 700-MHz Regional Wireless Broadband Network (RWBN) that will enable a robust set of tools and applications for police, fire and other emergency personnel, and could serve as a test bed for the planned national public safety network.

The NCR Interoperability Program, which Boley oversees for the District's CTO, includes completion of the RWBN to 106 sites. "The idea then is that everyone would interoperate on the same level, on the same concept as the national network," Boley said. The project will cover more than 2,400 square miles and all population centers within the Region.

    * NCR Net, or iNets, will provide basic, secure interoperability over all jurisdictions. Between 8 and 10 jurisdictions connected now, with completion "not far out past the fiscal year."
    * A data exchange hub, where each jurisdiction is hooked into one other, will enable interoperability of data. Before this can be put into place, however, all the MOUs and protocols on a simple government-to-government basis must be worked out, so there must be a certain compatibility.

Boley said: "You're talking about building a single network to encompass all the jurisdictions. Where you're in a position to start off fresh, maybe interoperability isn't that big of an issue, but it depends on who you're trying to network with. Are you talking regionally? Across agencies? Within your own jurisdiction? What do you all see that are the big interoperability issue?"

Interoperability and Applications
Interoperability requires coordination not only across multiple jurisdictions but across networks and applications as well. Lynn Willenbring, CIO of the City of Minneapolis, provided a case study: the massive public-safety response following the Minneapolis bridge collapse on August 1, 2007 and use of the city's new Wi-Fi mesh network by multiple agencies.

"Once you take the four levels of government, I counted up 18 different agencies that were involved: police, fire department, the park board, sheriff, the state patrol, transportation, state homeland security, and the University of Minnesota. At the federal level, FEMA, DOT, TSB, FBI, Secret Service, Coast Guard, and the Navyâ?¦and then all of our mutual aid agencies that offered to help. When you talk about interoperability, we are a perfect case study."

At the same time, the response included timely useage of the City's Wi-Fi mesh network to support video surveillance and GIS mapping. Minneapolis already had 800 MHz for voice, but for data, "the Wi-Fi was priceless," Willenbring said. Service provider USI Wireless opened up the network for free access, and the local media scrolled that at the bottom of the television screen. "That was very useful for emergency responders."

The response, she said, could be even faster in the future. "Cameras actually took a lot longer than it

will the next time." The bridge went down on a Wednesday night, and the cameras went up about 36 hours later.

The problem was the hardware. "We needed IP-addressable cameras, and what we did with those camera -- it was wonderful, we didn't need to put out a URL. It was confidential. We gave them to the responders who needed them. Images were viewed in real time, and that was important when it came to communicating with other organizations who needed to bring equipment and what-not. When you have the voice with the video, it became so much easier, and because it was interoperable, anybody could see it."

Interoperability in U.S. Digital Cities
During an ensuing brainstorm discussion among the two dozen participants general several comments and questions for future editions of the Roundtable:

    * Interoperability within jurisdictions is just as difficult as across jurisdictions.
    * Interoperability requires moment-to-moment situational awareness. Fundamentally, it's about operability, and that's the way public safety/emergency response all have to work with this information fluidly. Information belongs to the public, and it should be shared seamlessly.
    * The operational requirement is the fundamental driver. "Huge gobs of bandwidth" are of critical importance, and if video isn't detailed, then it's useless. If you can't see it in real time, then you can't make real-time decisions. "I find that 700 MHz would be challenged to deliver that information. If you know what to do with it, there is a world of difference it can make."
    * Push-to-talk should work on all the systems we have. We need cell-phone notification -- location-based alerts based on proximity to towers."We don't have in this country a technology to notify people via cell phone about emergencies, and we need to be able to access people via cell phone. As an average resident, I need to know that."  But do we sign up or not sign up? What are the privacy issues?
    * The Department of Homeland Security's SAFECOM program is ramping up its statewide public-safety interoperability initiative with more than $10 billion in funding to be distributed in 2008, and more to come over several years forward.
    * Public Safety Interoperable Communications (PSIC) Grants are making their way to the states, and states are preparing to pass them through to local public-safety agencies. The Department of Commerce, which controls the funding for the program, has left it largely to the states to decide what interoperable communications means to them and how best to effect it. Consequently, each state is defining interoperability (and even communications) differently. Add to that the fact that each state has a different idea of what constitutes "pass-through," and you have a fairly complex landscape.

What Are the Policy Requirements?
Given September 11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Minneapolis bridge collapse, what are the minimum requirements for interoperability from a policy standpoint? If field practitioners know what the requirements are, this will dictate which networks will need to be used. How would such requirements impact networks? Applications? For example, what are the standards in government that will be applied by vendors such that video will work in standard ways?

As state and federal agencies begin to confront these issues, future editions of this Roundtable will enable local-government broadband-wireless network champions to develop insightful responses and solutions. Your comments and questions will help hape future agendas of this session.

The Wireless Internet Institute, LLC, is an independent forum bringing together stakeholders around the world to accelerate the adoption of wireless Internet in support of social and economic development and better managed cities, communities and regions. For more information, visit

Photo of the collapse of Interstate 35W near downtown Minneapolis, taken about an hour after the disaster by  Eric (eb78). Creative Commons License Attribution-Share Alike 2.0