Taking Inventory

Washington's plan for interoperability will require an agency-by-agency look at communications equipment.

by / December 4, 2003
To look ahead five or 10 years and conceptualize interoperability standards, Washington state discovered it must first look back. To develop statewide interoperability standards with existing technology of various state and local agencies, it's important to first know what that technology is. So Washington's State Interoperability Executive Committee (SIEC), tasked with making interoperability a reality, began an inventory of all the state's radio systems.

Washington has forged ahead of most states in its quest for interoperability standards by passing legislation and taking the inventory. But it may be the first of many states to go down this path.

"If you go to virtually any state and ask for inventory of all radio systems or all radios that are in the state, most or all states will not be able to provide you a single list," said Clark Palmer, commander of the Electronic Services Division of the Washington State Patrol. "We want to get to a certain point in the future, and we need to know where we're starting from so we can build a map."

That map consists of the state's communications infrastructure, how it can be tied together and the costs of replacing or modifying it to eventually arrive at statewide standards for law enforcement, fire and emergency medical entities.

The SIEC, a committee of state and local agencies, was chartered by the Information Services Board and is staffed by the Department of Information Services. The SIEC has existed for years, but a recent piece of state legislation, Substitute House Bill 1271, gave the SIEC some backbone.

"Other states have taken different approaches [to the interoperability problem]" Palmer said. "We're out in the forefront in the fact that we have legislation and a legislative body with very tight time frames and different goals. I believe it is probably the only plan that tackled the issue on all approaches, including frequency management."

One of the bill's first orders was to direct the Information Services Board to appoint committee members that included representatives from the military department, the Washington State Patrol, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Natural Resources, city and county governments, state and local fire chiefs, police chiefs and sheriffs, and state and local emergency management directors.

The committee is responsible for developing and implementing statewide interoperability standards. One goal of the legislation is to address the spectrum issue by coordinating and managing use of state-designated and state-licensed radio frequencies.

The bill calls for the committee to have a final statewide public-safety communications plan in place by Dec. 31, 2004.

Interim deadlines and goals include completing an inventory of state-government-operated public-safety communications systems by Dec. 31, 2003, and completing an inventory of all public communications systems in the state by March 31, 2004.

Using Legacy Technology
Initially the SIEC considered requesting detailed information from each agency -- such as make of radio, channel capacity, appearance of radio frequencies -- but after noting the amount of work involved and the imminent deadlines, scaled back its approach.

The six-page document seeks responses mostly regarding the number of items and manufacturer of portable radios, mobile radios, base station radios, repeaters, console equipment and other hardware.

Palmer said asking for the original cost of the various radio systems was initially going to be part of the inventory, but that idea was scrapped. "It doesn't really matter what we paid for the radios to date. What we're trying to do is look at where we need to be in five or 10 years and what is it going to cost to either replace or modify these radios to meet that long-term goal."

Instead, the committee is asking for information it needs to create a baseline for the plan.

"In looking at it," Palmer said, "What do you do with all that information? If people are going to provide information, the expectation is that someone will do something with it.

"We're not asking for technical information, we're asking for estimated quantities, primary manufacturer. Do you have 10 radios? Do you have 1,000 radios? A lot of detail is nice to know, but it's probably not going to affect the overall outcome of the inventory."

The beginning of the journey, and key component of the plan, is the inventory process because of the decision to incorporate each agency's legacy technology, instead of implementing a whole new system.

Once the inventory is complete, the SIEC will use the information to frame a policy-level discussion about the benefits, costs and concerns of the findings, and make a decision on what standards should apply to the state.

The SIEC has received responses from some state agencies and will soon begin addressing local agencies. The expectation is the SIEC will not get a response from every agency at first, particularly from smaller jurisdictions.

In that case, the committee will offer assistance, such as someone to help complete the forms or collect information.

Palmer said the committee tried to simplify the process, so a person doing the inventory could complete the task in a couple hours. "For the smaller agencies, taking even a few hours to complete an inventory will be difficult. That's why we're looking at, 'Are there groups available we can use to help those organizations?'"

The SIEC has tried to ensure the inventory forms land on the right desks immediately and not shuffled to different people throughout an agency.

"One challenge is for each local agency -- and there are a lot of them out there -- to find out who the contact person is and get the inventory into the right hands," said Capt. Paul Beckley, acting deputy chief of the Technical Services Bureau of the Washington State Police.

An inventory is not a bad idea Beckley said, even if interoperability standards aren't the goals. "From a statewide perspective, it's nice to know the resources you have and the specific areas you have them in. It's nice to know even if you're not planning radio system development."

But Beckley said other states would have to decide whether it's worth the effort. "They'll have to look at the amount of work involved and the personal contact with all the organizations and decide if that's worth the value to them."

The Simple Approach
The SIEC took the simple approach to give agencies a chance to assemble the information without too much difficulty, Palmer said.

"We deliberately took the approach of one, trying to minimize the time commitment, and then also looking at the information involved so we could say, 'If you spend two hours completing this inventory we will use all the information you will provide.'"

Another reason SIEC kept it simple is the concern, on the part of a few agencies, about information security. The committee also has tried to assure agencies the information being sought will not be disclosed publicly because it's public-safety communications information, Palmer said.

The inventory form says the information "may be exempt from public disclosure," and "every effort must be made to control access to this document and the information it contains. Only individuals with official capacity shall have access to this information."

Facing an Inventory
Like it or not, the inventory process is something most states will face sooner or later because not many states can afford to wipe out existing infrastructure and buy new systems, said Dereck Orr, program manager of public-safety communications standards for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. NIST has begun looking at helping states develop a database and methodology for capturing inventory information.

"All systems are going to have to incorporate existing infrastructure, and therefore, you're going to have to understand exactly what's out there to be successful," he said.

"There are a lot of instances where [states] are going to be looking somehow at tapping into existing infrastructure. We're going to have to design a more sophisticated tool for that kind of data collection because everybody looking to do large-scale interoperability projects is going to have to have that information."

It could be a difficult process, depending on how sophisticated the database is, Orr said. The database could include the wireless communications infrastructure, and have existing phone lines, hard wires and frequency assignments as graphic overlays.

But Orr said such a project must be a "practitioner-type project," and that interoperability is only going to happen from the bottom up, from local jurisdictions up to the states and feds.

Building the "biggest, neatest piece of software in the world" is a waste of time, he said, if there's no one to use it. "They need to know how far they are going to take it before they have to stop and say, 'That's too much information, we can't take the time to log that.'

"It really comes down to how sophisticated the users need something like that to be," Orr said. "The more specific you are, the better idea you really have of your communications infrastructure and situation. Before a project like that is started, one of the questions should be, 'What are the users going to use?'"
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor