Responders from 16 agencies tested the promise of interoperability embodied in multiband radios at the two-week New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and in daily operations that included monitoring a swollen Mississippi River.

An estimated 400,000 people converged on the New Orleans’ Fair Grounds Race Course for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival providing state, local and federal responder agencies an opportunity to test a multiband radio in the event’s crowded and noisy conditions from April 29 to May 8.

The pilot’s primary purpose was to test the interoperable communications capability afforded by the multiband technology in a situation where multiple agencies on disparate bands were attempting to coordinate. The state and local agencies were on 700 and 800 MHz bands, while a private ambulance service and many of the federal agencies were on VHF with the Coast Guard operating on the marine VHF band.

Being Heard

The Louisiana Wireless Information Network (LWIN), a digital trunked network built on Motorola Astro 25, provided the 700 and 800 MHz backbone for the agencies involved in the pilot using radios on 700 and 800 MHz bands, VHF and VHF marine bands. Communications were also supported by the Louisiana Region One Communications Network maintained by the New Orleans Urban Areas Security Initiative region consisting of a 10-site simulcast 700/800 MHz digital trunked system. 

Responders representing 16 local, state and federal agencies tested the noise suppression capabilities as well as the interoperability afforded by the Harris XG-100P radios.

“We have [Motorola] XTS 5000s or 2500 radios right now,” said Ken Hughes, communications planner with the New Orleans UASI region. “And in particular I would say the fire departments have a difficult time communicating when they’re standing next to the pumpers, the exhaust fans or K saws — any loud equipment.”

Each officer who patrolled the fair grounds was assigned a radio. The radios canceled the background noise within a couple of seconds of the connection being made as the device distinguished the officer’s voice, according to reports Hughes received from officers and dispatchers. “If you have an officer that needs assistance — with that many people in the crowd, things can get out of control very fast — so being able to be heard the first time by the officer on the scene and/or dispatchers is very critical to us,” he said.

Hughes would have liked the chance to test several of the radio’s other features, including its GPS capability. “When you’re surrounded by water and/or marshland, you’re constantly having to go out and do rescues and you really don’t have landmarks,” he said. “We would have loved the opportunity to play with that a little bit more.”

During the festival, the Coast Guard also exercised its response to Mardi Gras by deploying a pollution response team and conducting patrols of the river. “All of those teams were able to communicate with each other and our sector command center satisfactorily and also with the [New Orleans] EOC,” said Russ Bowen, chief of response operations for the Coast Guard Sector New Orleans.

Signal coverage for the test was 96 percent for the LWIN and slightly less for the Coast Guard’s marine band network, Bowen said, because that network is focused offshore. “Having both our offshore system and the ability to use the state system for our in-shore work, having them both — especially both in the same radio — is a key enabler for our operations,” he said.

Room for Improvement

While the radio performed satisfactorily overall, Hughes and Bowen would like to see changes in the antenna length and an increased number of accessories available for the Unity XG-100 radio. “I don’t think the users were very receptive to that taller antenna,” Hughes said. “But I think if given the opportunity of seeing a more robust, feature-rich radio versus a little bit of more antenna height, the trade off is well worth it.”  

Capable of picking up frequencies between 138 and 870 MHz, multiband radios require a longer antenna to operate at the VHF band and above.

A greater number of accessories, such as earpieces and headsets for the radio, would benefit numerous law enforcement missions, officials said. “I would say earpieces would be of great value,” Hughes said. “Again, when you’re in a large crowd, it’s sometimes hard to actually hear the radio, especially if it is on your hip.”

Coast Guard boarding teams want a headset to work with the Unity radio, Bowen said. “Just any more ways you can customize it for the operator — the way he’s going to do his work and accomplish his mission — is better,” Bowen said.

Flood Watch

Following the festival, first responders and crews from the the Coast Guard, Mississippi River levee board and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been using the radios in their day-to-day operations, including monitoring the Mississippi River. 

Jerry Sneed, director of homeland security and emergency preparedness for New Orleans, received reports that responders monitoring the river were generally pleased with the radio’s performance, including the noise suppression and GPS capabilities.

“It gives you much more interoperability,” Sneed said. “That’s the key: One radio where you used to have to have three different radios in your vehicle. You couldn’t possibly carry that many radios on your belt. Now you’ve got one on your belt that you can talk with anybody at any time. The only negative I have heard is that antenna is kind of long and gets in the way.”

On the Horizon

The Louisiana pilot is the second of four tests planned for the Harris Unity XG-100P radios. The first test took place in February and March in Arizona, and the last two tests are scheduled to take place in Miami-Dade County, Fla., and Chicago before the end of August.

Previous pilots tested multiband radios from Thales Communications. Future tests of Datron and Motorola multiband radios are also expected, according to Tom Chirhart, program manager for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate’s Multiband Radio Program.

Following the pilots, the directorate will create a guide for first responder agencies seeking to purchase multiband radios. It’s scheduled to be completed by the end of the first quarter of 2012. “It’s a … how-to guide. If you need this capability, you want to make sure it’s capable of this,” Chirhart said.