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Maryland’s Statewide Public Safety Radio Network Takes Shape

The Maryland First Responders Interoperable Radio System Team (Maryland FiRST) is designed to solve interoperability problems.

by / September 10, 2012
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley makes the first call on the Maryland FiRST radio network. Photo courtesy of the state of Maryland.

Maryland has launched the first phase of a statewide public safety radio network that will allow public safety personnel from state agencies and local jurisdictions to communicate digitally across a single, interoperable system.

The new 700 MHz radio system, Maryland First Responders Interoperable Radio System Team (Maryland FiRST), was officially announced in June and the entire network is expected to be operating within four years.

Gov. Martin O’Malley said in a video that the $48 million first phase of the network’s rollout is expected to be completed by the end of  2012 once testing and training is done.

The Maryland Transportation Authority, State Police and Kent County will be first to utilize Maryland FiRST. Upon completion, the network will support all Maryland police, firefighters, emergency medical services, emergency management personnel and first responders, according to the announcement.  

“By building Maryland FiRST, we are making great progress toward this critical goal of interoperability for our public safety agencies,” O’Malley said in a statement earlier this year. “Our first responders deserve modern communications equipment to perform their jobs in the safest and most effective way possible.”

Maryland Interoperability Director Ray Lehr said the radio network will be particularly beneficial to state police because there are “handicaps” in the radio system they currently operate in. These problems include gaps in coverage, forced radio swaps, “patch-overs” to other radio bands when different jurisdictions work together, and other interoperability problems. With the rollout of the single radio network, the police and the other users will have improved coverage.

“It’s going to be a real game-changer for all the state agencies,” Lehr said.

The statewide radio system rollout comes before the FCC’s Jan. 1, 2013, deadline for new “narrowbanding” requirements.

The FCC is requiring all public safety and “business industrial” land mobile radio systems that are operating in the 150 to 512 MHz radio band to stop using 25 kHz channels and switch to 12.5 kHz “narrowband” channels. According to the FCC, if radio systems do not make the switch by 2013, they will be in violation of the new rules and subject to penalties.

Lehr said because the mandate was put in place years ago, states have had plenty of time to prepare for the 2013 deadline.

Photo: This radio tower located at the Maryland State Police headquarters in Pikesville was the first site to be connected to the new statewide radio network Maryland FiRST. Photo courtesy of the state of Maryland.

In Maryland, the initial phase of the network’s rollout includes central Maryland and the state’s I-95 corridor. Outside the state, the radio network already has been connected to bordering areas in Delaware and Virginia. During later phases, the network will be able to share radio frequencies with bordering areas of Pennsylvania; Washington, D.C.; and West Virginia.

To ensure network security, voice communication on the radio system is encrypted. “That transition goes into the radio and it’s converted to digital data,” Lehr said. “Essentially it’s not a voice being transmitted across the radio waves anymore.”

According to the Maryland Department of Information Technology, the first phase of the system will be built by utilizing existing state infrastructure (radio towers), and the entire project is being developed by Motorola Solutions through a contract the vendor was awarded in 2010.

Governance for Maryland FiRST will be developed by Maryland’s Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee.

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Sarah Rich

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. She wrote for for Government Technology magazine from 2010 through 2013.

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