The final installment of our three-part interoperability series focuses on obtaining the right technology to become interoperable -- the final step after collaboration -- and assumes agencies want interoperable equipment.
As almost an aside to the conversations about 10-codes, politics and turf battles as they relate to interoperability, Harlin McEwen, vice chairman of the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council, sounded an ominous note about the lack of radio interoperability among first responders from different agencies and locales.
"You've got all these disparate systems -- I don't believe in my heart that's ever going to be resolved," he said. "There's not enough money, and the problem is, what you change this year to bring some compatibility, next year somebody has a newer and better product."
The problem isn't the lack of technology from which to choose; in fact, plenty has been done in the interoperability arena in terms of solutions first responders can focus on without reinventing the wheel. The real need is for responders to take rising costs into consideration, as well as the ease of use, and look into forming partnerships with nearby jurisdictions that have already deployed solutions.
There are many considerations when procuring a radio system, and cost tops the list. Effective radio communication systems can be expensive, and many agencies and locales can't afford the investment.
"For many years, radio systems were a pretty simple technology and lasted for a long time," said Kevin Kearns, executive director of iXP Corp., based in Washington state. "It was not uncommon to see 20-year-old base stations in use, and mobile and portable radios at 10 to 15 years of age. The gear could be repaired by radio technicians as long as the parts were available, and that was typically a long time."
That, however, has changed dramatically in the last decade.
"Systems are much more complex now and utilize expensive new technologies that have shorter life cycles," Kearns explained. "Radio systems are looking more and more like IT systems, and some of the core components of the infrastructures have comparable life cycles. That shifts a significant capital expenditure burden on a jurisdiction that may be having a hard time just coming up with adequate funding for personnel and operating costs."
Though the right technology is a bit of a moving target, it's important to find out what interoperability investments have already been made, and consider partnering with another agency or locale, said Chris Essid, interoperability coordinator for Virginia. He said it's critical to coordinate with other locales in the region to ensure that communications systems are interoperable.
"Many times systems are built 100 percent independently -- without consideration of partnering with a nearby system that would create a larger footprint at a reduced cost," he said. "I was in a meeting where a locality was going to build a system, but once they realized the state was building the same kind of system, they let the state use their frequencies in return for being able to become a primary user on the system. This resulted in millions being saved."
Essid advises agencies to retain internal technical expertise when dealing with the vendors.
"Many times what you need is much different from what you are being sold, and localities can save millions on large systems by having some internal technical expertise to advise them."
A Cyren Call
If a certain project comes to fruition, technology costs could be mitigated.
The project in question -- a nationwide, public-safety grade broadband network for emergency responders, built by commercial operators and shared with the government -- is proposed by the co-founder of Nextel Communications, Morgan O'Brien, now co-founder and chairman of a company called Cyren Call.
Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management magazine. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout.