The convergence of voice and data networks makes interoperability more complex — not only must voice data be received and sent across radios and telecom systems, but disparate databases and computer-aided dispatch systems must also send and receive information.

Standards are another crucial issue. Although the use of open communications standards has come far in 10 years, there’s still a huge amount of proprietary communications gear in use by public safety agencies nationwide.  

“In major events like Hurricane Katrina, we get people moving into grief-stricken areas from other parts of the country, and because of the diverse equipment that’s out there that uses proprietary technology, this is a huge problem nationally,” said Dick Mirgon, past president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International. Mirgon is also the spokesman for the Public Safety Alliance (PSA), a partnership of public safety associations that seeks to make the federal government aware of what first responder agencies need to build a nationwide interoperable wireless network.

“Proprietary equipment” are two words that make officials shudder at a time when voice and data are being viewed as essentially the same types of technology. The current environment doesn’t just hinder cross-agency communication, it also increases costs and slows innovation. “The staff of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau believe that proprietary solutions and market dominance play an important role in the problems with interoperability, innovation, cost and competition in the market for public safety communications equipment,” wrote FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in a 2010 report.

One solution for vendors’ products that can’t intercommunicate is open standards like the National Information Exchange Model, which uses extensible markup language to exchange information regardless of platform or computer system.  “We’ve built information exchange capability that would have never come close to existing prior to Sept. 11,” Wormeli said.

While advancement has been made, parts of the U.S. still rely on paper-based processes, and Wormeli said the standards must be replicated and built into off-the-shelf products that many small- and medium-sized jurisdictions buy. “We have to get all of the companies that make those products to incorporate those standards, and we’re making progress on that end,” he said.

That’s the IJIS Institute’s main goal: to educate and help industry adopt standards. Wormeli said it’s monetarily beneficial for companies to adopt standards, and it lets them reduce risk when selling to small agencies. But, he added, the practitioner community can also request that standards are incorporated into products by including the right language in RFPs.

“Once you have an accepted standard out there and a technology that’s used for commercial networks, the cost of deployment significantly drops and it becomes much easier to become interoperable,” Mirgon said.

It’s not just the public sector that advocates standardization. The Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), a standards development organization, supports the use of voluntary, open, consensus-based standards, said Danielle Coffey, TIA’s vice president for government affairs. She said the TIA works with public safety organizations, like APCO to weigh what’s best for the industry with the technical aspects and how they’d affect consumers.

“The more manufacturers that adopt standards and build to those standards, the more probability or allowance for increased interoperability,” Coffey said.

Reallocating Spectrum

Before the national interoperable network can be built, however, it may need a new place to live.

The 9/11 Commission recommended that more spectrum be allocated to public safety so that first responders from different agencies and jurisdictions would have an easier time communicating. Public safety radio systems operate in portions of the 800 MHz band. But the band also is used by commercial wireless carriers and private radio systems. Essentially public safety needs increased and dedicated spectrum to build out a national broadband system.

Both the FCC and federal lawmakers recently took steps toward building the national network. In January, the FCC made the unusual move of designating Long Term Evolution as the communications standard infrastructure for the network, which Genachowshi said is key to its creation. Now legislation is being presented to carve out new spectrum for public safety users and to provide funding for the build-out of the national network. Several bills would reallocate space in the 700 MHz band of spectrum — known as the D Block — for dedicated public safety use, allowing more users to be on the network, as well as additional applications.

Elaine Pittman  |  Associate Editor

Elaine Pittman is the associate editor for Government Technology, Public CIO and Emergency Management. Before coming to Government Technology, she worked for The Coloradoan daily newspaper in Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached via email and @elainerpittman on Twitter.