Interoperable communications in the palm of your hand

First a bit of background. Since the 1990s, demands on public safety and federal radio spectrum have increased dramatically as the need for more communication channels for calls, more data channels, and more connectivity is demanded by a growing universe of government agencies and individuals who rapidly react.

To address this insatiable appetite for additional channels, talkgroups and network capacity, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Agency have allocated the spectrum into different frequency bands from 30-870 MHz. The first band was 30-50 MHz, which is still used today by many agencies. A progressive series of higher frequency bands were then released from the 136-174 MHz, 402-420 MHz, 450-470 MHz, 470-520 MHz, 800 MHz and most recently the 380-400 MHz and 700 MHz bands. Each band is accessed using a separate, dedicated, single-band radio. Traditional RF components and radio design approaches limit economically viable designs to one band for each portable radio.

The tragic events of the Oklahoma City bombing; September 11, 2001; Hurricane Katrina; and the Minnesota bridge collapse put communications interoperability in focus for government agencies across the country. The existing solutions just weren’t working. Although linking and switching equipment was available and there was a common air standard under the APCO Project 25 (P25) effort, no single transceivers were yet available that could operate in all bands. It remained common for incident commanders and personnel to carry two, three, or even four radios to communicate with each other.

What would the right solution look like? Technological advances and software defined radio (SDR) techniques developed for the military now make it possible to have a single portable multiband radio (MBR) that operates on all major public safety frequency bands as well as bands used by Department of Defense Frequencies. of Defense (DoD), Federal agencies, and Marines deployed on waterways. This new type of portable radio will also allow multi-mode operation of older legacy analogue FM systems, newer P25 digital systems (both trunked and conventional) and will operate in both clear and encrypted modes using a P25-specific 256-bit key Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) encryption.

Using a new MBR, you can define Channel 1 for a regional P25 trunking system, Channel 2 for a VHF analog channel used by a local volunteer fire department, Channel 3 for a UHF EMS frequency, Channel 4 for a federal government P25 digital frequency, and Channel 5 for 700 MHz trunking system in a border municipality. Now you truly have “communications interoperability in the palm of your hand” and a new tool for coordinating a multi-agency response across multiple Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems.

With 2.2 million first responders in the U.S. today, the expectation is that everyone will be able to connect with other field personnel, as well as their dispatch centers, with clear, reliable voice and data communications. Lives are at stake and the radio is an essential tool to accomplish the mission. In many cases, their needs go beyond this traditional use, and radio communications are used to coordinate the response of law enforcement, EMS, fire, transportation, and federal agencies as they work as a team to manage, direct, and assist in terrorist incidents, major sports events or natural disasters. The MBR can be a useful tool for coordinating multi-agency resources for these large regional events

Many law enforcement agencies are involved in special task force operations. These groups successfully combine the resources and unique expertise of various agencies and personnel to address specific criminal elements and threats. MBR creates a tool that allows these groups to manage and share channels on their home systems as well as new systems they can travel to for support.

What other capabilities would an MBR solution bring to help us meet our interoperability challenges? First, the ability to leverage existing infrastructure and operate without infrastructure is key. The right solution will bridge between established regional P25 trunking systems and conventional radio users from neighboring municipalities using other bands.

Flexible deployment is also essential, such as the ability to serve a single incident commander, a group of commanders, all squad leaders, and/or each team member as required. This means that communications interoperability improvements can be delivered to a wide range of users, from the smallest rural agencies to the largest urban systems.

Ease of use is also a priority. The radio should be easy to operate and quick to deploy. The familiarity that users would have with MBR technologies used in day-to-day operations would be life-saving in crisis situations.

With maximum spectrum utilization, local users who have moved to 800 MHz systems but have retained older VHF and UHF conventional frequencies for backup will have access to all these bands for additional talk channels. Federal users who have been frustrated by the overcrowding of the VHF spectrum can now freely use the 402 to 420 MHz band along with their traditional VHF channels in one portable radio.

Many government agencies have established stashes of portable radios, maintained, pre-programmed and ready for use in incidents and natural disasters. MBR is ideal for this application as it enables users to contact other responding agencies regardless of bandwidth. In addition, if the radio system infrastructure is destroyed or shut down, the user has the option to connect in alternative frequency bands that are still operational.

A well-defined set of mutual aid channels exist across the country, now with standardized channel names, for public safety and Federal agency communications interoperability. This new radio will be able to host these channels on all major frequency bands to create instant communication links between different agencies at the scene of an incident.

Technology is only part of the interoperability solution. Well-developed communication plans for incidents, natural disasters, and interagency cooperation at major public events are essential. Prior training is required for staff at all levels. Memorandums of understanding for shared channels between agencies and operations are already in place in many regions of the country to support these plans.

In addition, radio manufacturers must commit to formal testing and ensure that the most reliable communications equipment is provided to law enforcement. Performance, emissions, intrinsic safety, P25 Conformity Assessment Program (CAP) and encryption are the basic certifications and approvals users should look for. The P25 CAP tests, for example, provide a means of verifying that radio equipment meets the P25 standard and will be interoperable in P25 systems. Federal grant dollars are invested in standardized solutions that promote interoperability for more than 60,000 emergency response agencies across the country.

One such solution now in the hands of first responders is Thales Communications’ LibertyTM multi-band, multi-mode, software-defined radio. Thales leveraged more than 10 years of P25 Public Safety experience and an unmatched SDR technology base serving the DoD to develop the Liberty radio. In early 2008, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Directorate of Science and Technology, awarded a contract to Thales to demonstrate a single MBR that allows emergency responders to communicate with partner agencies, regardless of radio range, on who work. This radio, the Liberty radio, became the first multi-band, full-spectrum public safety radio approved by the FCC. It operates in all public safety frequency bands (136-174 MHz, 380-520 MHz, 700 MHz and 800 MHz) and in all modes (P25 conventional, P25 trunking and legacy analog). It offers Outbound Data Encryption Standard (OFB DES) and AES with rekeying over the air for secure communications. Mil Spec rugged, the Liberty radio is submerged up to two meters.

After undergoing operational evaluation in 2009 – including use at the presidential inauguration, the Kentucky Derby, multiple live burnouts and other events – the Liberty radio is now being pilot tested under the DHS MBR program. Each of the participating agencies will conduct a minimum 30-day pilot project. Pilot projects are designed to focus on the capabilities and effectiveness of the technology, with users primarily in a command and control role or involved in multi-entity special operations. Factors such as workflows, partner agencies and disciplines, interoperable settings, and geographic landscapes were considered in the selection of pilot sites. Feedback provided by pilot program participants will help ensure that true interoperability is delivered to our nation’s first responders. [reference July 1, 2009, DHS press release entitled “DHS Announces Sites for Multi-Band Radio Pilot”]

Yes, Law enforcement agencies; Local, federal and state agencies; and the Department of Defense can now communicate on all public frequency bands using a single portable radio. Interoperability is in the palm of your hand!

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