Communications "Troops" Deployed in Massachusetts

The former director of communications for Massachusetts explains how balancing technology, funding and political support paved the way for the state's new radio system.

by / July 31, 1998 0
It was 1991 when Massachusetts began work on its first statewide public-safety radio communications system. Today, the system delivers portable, in-street coverage to approximately 95 percent of eastern Massachusetts. By the year 2000, the system should be operational statewide.

Massachusetts was among the first states to help create what has become the model for statewide communications systems, and we at the Massachusetts State Police and similar state agencies believe we have made three important contributions to developing this model:

* It is possible to create interoperable communications without necessarily starting from scratch.

* It is possible to build support for the system across many political administrations and among different agencies with changing needs.

* These systems can be funded to the level they require by applying a mixture of creativity, smart timing and good planning.

Build on What Exists

When we began working on the system, we realized that many of the required resources for the new system were already in place. We also knew making good use of these resources would help to impress legislators we needed to win over for funding, which would make achieving an interoperable statewide system a lot easier.

One existing resource was the radio system used by Boston's Metropolitan Police. In 1987, the Metropolitan Police bought a Motorola 800MHz trunked simulcast communications system. The system included three sites, 20 channels and cost about $5 million. Over the next few years, the system performed so well that many area agencies began to share the system infrastructure.

The success of the Metropolitan Police system did not go unnoticed by state officials in Boston. Thinking other agencies might consider moving to similar systems in the future, the state began securing 800MHz spectrum as part of its long-term communications strategy. The state was particularly interested in 806MHz frequencies because of the 70-mile coverage radius. Many believed the large coverage area might help control future communications system costs.

System design began in 1993, and implementation started in 1994. We decided to install the system in phases to make the entire transition gradual and to work within available funding.

We began statewide system implementation with the Metropolitan Police. Then, we installed portions of the system for troops serving the state's northeastern and southeastern shores and the infrastructure for Barnstable County (Cape Cod). Today, the system numbers 22 sites and 41 channels, including system coverage in Boston's Ted Williams Tunnel.

System design has begun for the troops that cover the central portion of the state; it will be extended to the troops that cover the western portion of the state, including the Berkshires, in about 24 months.

The statewide system uses Motorola's sophisticated SmartZone trunked technology. We can operate the system in either digital or analog modes -- a real plus since our current mobile and portable radios operate in analog mode. We plan to implement digital modulation radios in the near future for those functions requiring secure communications.

We manage the entire system from State Police headquarters in Framingham. A SmartZone switch enables field personnel to roam throughout the state without losing communications with any agency on the system. The system handles all the radio "handoffs" from one antenna site to another automatically.

All voice communications are managed from Motorola CENTRACOM 2 Plus consoles. Presently, we have five consoles at State Police headquarters in Framingham, three in Middleboro to handle Cape Cod and Southeast Massachusetts, and two for the Metropolitan Police in Boston. Eventually, we will add regional dispatch centers and consoles in the central and western portions of the state.

Site sharing enabled us to limit new site acquisition and construction -- a substantial environmental benefit. We share many antenna sites with Cellular One and Bell Atlantic. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management also has provided space on fire
towers in state parks.

The microwave system that ties the statewide system together already is in place, and we plan to test a mobile data system this year.

Building Political Support

Creating the statewide system required broad political support. We knew the political challenge in Massachusetts had at least four parts:

We had to solidify support from all four agencies that would initially share the system.
We needed to persuade additional state agencies to join the system.
We needed to persuade legislators to provide the funding necessary to pay for it.
We needed to devise a method for maintaining the system over time.
Legislatures often fund projects without initially creating a mechanism for keeping them up and running over time. We wanted to avoid that future problem.

The technology we chose for the system actually helped build support among the four agencies that made up the core of the system. Trunking technology provided agencies communications privacy while making it possible to regroup them as necessary in emergencies that required multi-agency response.

We built support among other agencies by demonstrating the system would provide features and capabilities they could not get easily or affordably on their own. It also eliminated many of the headaches of operating a system themselves. One agency that agreed to try the system originally committed to put only 200 radios on the network. That same agency now has about 1,200 operating on the system.

The mix of public, private, state and local support we generated for the system created considerable confidence among state legislators. That trust ultimately helped us secure the funding the project needed.

We had two funding concerns: We wanted to fund the project adequately from the start. We also wanted a source of revenue to maintain the system in the future.

We solved the first problem by piggybacking on the Central Artery Project that began in Boston the same year the four public-safety agencies were consolidated. That was 1991, when Gov. William Weld and the Legislature decided to consolidate four previously independent agencies: the State Police, the Capitol Police, the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Metropolitan Police.

One of the major challenges of the consolidation was to decide what to do about their communications capabilities. A committee was formed to identify the best approach. We formed teams composed of agency personnel, the eventual communications system supplier -- Motorola -- and other private-sector suppliers who would have roles in building this system. This type of team building was not common in Massachusetts. In fact, our system became one of the first in the state to use combined public, private, state and local expertise on a major project.

The teams evaluated many potential system technologies but selected the 800MHz trunked technology the Metropolitan Police used as the best choice. At a cost of $8 billion, the Central Artery Project may be the largest, most complex and expensive highway project ever undertaken in the United States. It was created to build approximately 7.5 miles of highway through Boston, about half of which will be underground. Thanks to the support of many state legislators, we were able to finance the $52.5 million statewide communications system through transportation bonds included as part of the project.

To fund the system's ongoing service support, we devised a plan in which agencies on the system that had revenue streams -- independent from state funding -- would pay a fee per radio. We placed these fees in a retained revenue account and project the revenue we generate will be sufficient to maintain the entire system for everybody.

Perseverance Pays Off

Tackling a statewide public-safety communications system is no easy matter. It requires a lot of planning, a good deal of technological homework, coalition building for political support and perseverance.
nmental benefit. We share many antenna sites with Cellular One and Bell Atlantic. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management also has provided space on fire
towers in state parks.

The microwave system that ties the statewide system together already is in place, and we plan to test a mobile data system this year.

Building Political Support

Creating the statewide system required broad political support. We knew the political challenge in Massachusetts had at least four parts:

We had to solidify support from all four agencies that would initially share the system.
We needed to persuade additional state agencies to join the system.
We needed to persuade legislators to provide the funding necessary to pay for it.
We needed to devise a method for maintaining the system over time.
Legislatures often fund projects without initially creating a mechanism for keeping them up and running over time. We wanted to avoid that future problem.

The technology we chose for the system actually helped build support among the four agencies that made up the core of the system. Trunking technology provided agencies communications privacy while making it possible to regroup them as necessary in emergencies that required multi-agency response.

We built support among other agencies by demonstrating the system would provide features and capabilities they could not get easily or affordably on their own. It also eliminated many of the headaches of operating a system themselves. One agency that agreed to try the system originally committed to put only 200 radios on the network. That same agency now has about 1,200 operating on the system.

The mix of public, private, state and local support we generated for the system created considerable confidence among state legislators. That trust ultimately helped us secure the funding the project needed.

We had two funding concerns: We wanted to fund the project adequately from the start. We also wanted a source of revenue to maintain the system in the future.

We solved the first problem by piggybacking on the Central Artery Project that began in Boston the same year the four public-safety agencies were consolidated. That was 1991, when Gov. William Weld and the Legislature decided to consolidate four previously independent agencies: the State Police, the Capitol Police, the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Metropolitan Police.

One of the major challenges of the consolidation was to decide what to do about their communications capabilities. A committee was formed to identify the best approach. We formed teams composed of agency personnel, the eventual communications system supplier -- Motorola -- and other private-sector suppliers who would have roles in building this system. This type of team building was not common in Massachusetts. In fact, our system became one of the first in the state to use combined public, private, state and local expertise on a major project.

The teams evaluated many potential system technologies but selected the 800MHz trunked technology the Metropolitan Police used as the best choice. At a cost of $8 billion, the Central Artery Project may be the largest, most complex and expensive highway project ever undertaken in the United States. It was created to build approximately 7.5 miles of highway through Boston, about half of which will be underground. Thanks to the support of many state legislators, we were able to finance the $52.5 million statewide communications system through transportation bonds included as part of the project.

To fund the system's ongoing service support, we devised a plan in which agencies on the system that had revenue streams -- independent from state funding -- would pay a fee per radio. We placed these fees in a retained revenue account and project the revenue we generate will be sufficient to maintain the entire system for everybody.

Perseverance Pays Off

Tackling a statewide public-safety communications system is no easy matter. It requires a lot of planning, a good deal of technological homework, coalition building for political support and perseverance.

The lessons we learned through this entire process are important:

These systems can be created without necessarily building from ground zero.
Agencies with very different needs and agendas can come together to support a combined effort like this, especially one that delivers interoperability.
Mixing public and private, state and local interests can make the effort more compelling to legislators responsible for funding it.
Thanks to disciplined project management approach, funds can be secured not only to launch these systems but also to maintain them.
The Massachusetts statewide communications system is probably the largest capital project the State Police has ever undertaken. While we still have much work to do, it already has proven that the benefits to everyone are, and will continue to be, enormous. It also has proven that a state's success with a project such as this does not depend just on the right technology, political support and funding alone. It depends equally on a state's ability to find just the right balance among all these factors.

Donald C. Nagle Jr., appointed director of telecommunications for the Massachusetts State Police in 1992, managed the design and implementation of the Massachusetts 800MHz trunked communications system. Prior to his work with the state police, Nagle was director of telecommunications for Boston's Metropolitan Police Department and a management information system coordinator for the Harvard University Police Department. Nagle has since joined HTE, Inc. as director of public-safety and justice-system applications.

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