By James Mustarde
Twisted Pair Solutions
On September 11, 2001, hundreds of firefighters lost their lives, in part because they were unable to talk to each other. Ten years later, and having watched fire and rescue personnel face the same challenges through numerous disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti, and the tsunami in Japan, fire and rescue agencies across the nation are still searching for a communications interoperability solution.
During this time, we have also seen a number of proposed solutions, including calls for widespread adoption of P25 radio systems and the nationwide interoperable public safety broadband network, that have proven prohibitively expensive or too time consuming–or both–to be truly effective. However, software exists today that ensures communications interoperability for all participants by uniting disparate radios and other devices regardless of technology, manufacturer, frequency, or operator. Fire and rescue agencies can achieve complete and extensive interoperability now without replacing their current communications infrastructure.
When disaster strikes, fast, accurate, and dependable information sharing and collaboration between federal, state, and local government agencies are absolutely imperative. As we know, fire and rescue departments from different jurisdictions routinely work together and with other public safety agencies to provide emergency services to the public. However, as first responders, law enforcement, and other agencies converge at a scene, they often find their radios cannot communicate with one another because they use different systems from multiple manufacturers running on separate frequencies. The results are poor information flow, bad decision making, and risk to life and property.
As history has taught us, these workers must be able to communicate with each other and across agencies to save lives and mitigate damage. In the mobile environments where emergency personnel rely on push-to-talk (PTT) radios as their main source of communications, interoperability is essential to facilitate rapid and efficient interaction within and across agencies–not only to protect the public they serve but also to protect each other and themselves.
Funding, spectrum, and incompatible technologies are the main obstacles facing public safety agencies when trying to achieve interoperability. The public safety community has traditionally turned to one or two hardware vendors to serve the interoperability needs. However, archaic hardware-based solutions exacerbate these problems not only by requiring fire and rescue agencies to invest money they do not have in new equipment but also by introducing new technologies that require additional spectrum and cannot interoperate with current technologies. A software-based approach enables greater deployment flexibility; lowers acquisition costs; and preserves prior investments in network, server, and desktop infrastructure while increasing communications performance.
Software can unify disparate communications systems and devices, improving situational awareness and helping fire and rescue teams make better decisions faster while improving responder safety. Situational awareness is of tremendous importance to fire and rescue crews, making any communications delay a source of concern. Software reduces latency, allowing fire and rescue personnel to work faster and make more informed decisions during major incidents and day-to-day security and safety events.
When fire and rescue teams arrive on scene, there is no time to predict what the communications needs will be, especially during a disaster. Whereas hardware-based technologies require vendor-supplied, and often proprietary, servers and data network components, software can operate on off-the-shelf, industry-standard hardware. This gives fire and rescue personnel a choice regarding the devices they use and buy and the locations from which they operate.
Software provides an open platform that can unite disparate devices regardless of technology, manufacturer, or frequency and offers massive scalability to support huge numbers of participants across various organizational boundaries. When users want to add new devices to their communications network, they may do so in real time without contemplating the interoperability hiccups they faced before. Software also enables full communications interoperability across secured public and private networks while keeping bandwidth requirements to a minimum.
Few organizations, fire and rescue agencies notwithstanding, can afford to completely replace their existing communications infrastructure in the pursuit of interoperability. Scalability also means that fire and rescue agencies can reduce operating and maintenance costs by fully leveraging and repurposing existing equipment and procedures.
By no means am I suggesting that fire and rescue personnel should or will do away with two-way radios. The rugged handheld devices have proven their mission-critical reliability across environments and have become ubiquitous tools of the trade. They are public safety’s most valued life-saving technology and will undoubtedly play a role in public safety communications for a long time. However, the public safety community is on the verge of a communications revolution in which Internet protocol (IP) will dominate the exchange not only of voice communications but of data and video as well.
The Internet Strikes Again
The concept, now being referred to as “Radio over IP (RoIP),” is simple: convert all forms of communication to IP packets, use the network to carry those packets between endpoints, and build distributed intelligence and management capabilities at the network edge to connect the endpoints together. This may sound similar to Voice over IP (VoIP), but RoIP does something VoIP has not done. It factors in the urgent communications technologies, incorporating those radio nodes into the larger communications network and, like VoIP, leverages IP as the intelligent voice and data transport. IP makes it possible for fire and rescue personnel to leverage software as a solution for supporting and complementing their tried and true land mobile radio systems.
With software, radio systems of all types can operate together seamlessly regardless of make, model, and frequency. Analog, IP, and cellular phones can be patched into a radio network and used as PTT devices to transmit and receive radio voice traffic. Intercom systems can be used to broadcast voice communications from multiple sources and locations. Paging systems can be harnessed to facilitate rapid message or alert distribution from nonstandard sources. Personal computers and personal digital assistants can be used as PTT radios or as endpoints for any other communications device. Existing group communications technologies such as hoot-and-holler systems and airport crash phones can be expanded to include new groups and ad hoc participants. And, the real beauty is that with software, all of these capabilities can be brought together over one channel in real time, redefining the concept of situational awareness.
Not Limited to Hardware
The truth is that public safety’s interoperability and network growth options are not limited to proprietary hardware acquisitions and upgrades. By leveraging software, there is a better, more cost-efficient solution for extending the scope and improving the quality of voice and data networks. Unlike hardware, software applications can unify any combination of new and old radio devices, presenting fire and rescue personnel with a legitimate solution for realizing interoperability between units and even across jurisdictions for the first time.
The impact of this is significant because it allows fire and rescue agencies to increase the scope and reach of their communications networks without buying new radios or purchasing expensive upgrades. With a simple software download, agencies can connect islands of operability, using devices they are accustomed to and technology they are comfortable with. Software can provide organizationwide communications interoperability to increase safety and reduce costs. These software applications will revolutionize the way public safety agencies consider legacy investments, interoperability, and mission-critical voice.
JAMES MUSTARDE is marketing director for Twisted Pair Solutions, where he manages the company’s communications and visibility across sales channels. He has been published across enterprise and vertical trade publications and has spoken at several key industry conferences, helping audiences extend their networks, better leverage existing investments, and unify their communications operations. He currently manages the company’s WAVE brand, software that empowers mobile workforces with critical communications applications for secure, real-time collaboration anywhere and from any device.