Critical Calls

Getting first responders on the same wavelength requires common standards.

When Paul Llobell, fire commissioner of Long Island, N.Y., responds to an emergency call, he often straps on as many as five different radios to ensure he can communicate with local, state and federal responders. Depending on the situation, he might have to call in search-and-rescue, evacuation or public safety teams from other jurisdictions.

Likewise, when FBI agents in the Washington metro area drive two hours to Richmond, Va., to investigate a reported terrorist incident, they bring along a separate radio to work with local law enforcement. And Homeland Security agents lend some of their handheld devices to Interior Department officials to keep them up to date about compliance with environmental laws during surveillance efforts along the border.

Packing multiple devices might seem backwards given recent advances in wireless communications, but land mobile radios that allow users to communicate via a wireless network face distinctive challenges. Most notably, they often function only in a specific frequency, making it impossible for first responders in separate agencies and on different frequencies to talk to each other.

"In the world of radio frequencies, there are only so many out there," says Tom Chirhart, program manager of DHS' Science and Technology Directorate multiband radio research project, which recently launched tests of a new radio that works across various frequency bands. "After a while, they get full. That's why we end up with so many disparate bands," making communication difficult.

Further complicating matters, two regulatory bodies are involved with radio spectrum: The Federal Communications Commission administers spectrum for nonfederal users such as state and local government, commercial businesses, and private individuals, while the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration oversees spectrum for federal agencies.

"A lot of [first response] agencies like the autonomy that comes with having their own frequency for communication, but that doesn't work when there's a multiagency response," Llobell says. Besides his position as fire commissioner, Llobell is executive director of the National First Responders Organization.

Beyond disparate frequencies, some organizations also use proprietary communications systems that don't support other radios. Within the Justice Department, for example, each of the four major law enforcement agencies-the FBI; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; U.S. Marshals Service; and the Drug Enforcement Administration-rely on their own radio systems to communicate. Some of the systems are 20 years old, "making communications with other components cumbersome," says Vance Hitch, chief information officer at Justice. He notes that the department works with 20,000 law enforcement organizations, many of which have their own stovepiped systems that operate on separate frequencies.

"That's the legacy we're living with," Hitch says.

Solutions do exist. Among the more advanced are technologies that work through the Internet, "dumping all frequencies into [an Internet] cloud" for radios to access via the Web, says Stephen S. Martin, acting division chief for strategic planning, policy and analysis at DHS' Border Patrol. "There are interesting technologies, and we're deciding what we want to experiment with," he says. "Our challenge is figuring out how to best support and incentivize investigations in a controlled way, so we don't take a shotgun approach" that fails to support agency requirements.

Leading many of the initiatives at DHS is the Office of Emergency Communications, which Congress established in 2007 to address communications challenges that surfaced during Hurricane Katrina. The office leads programs to promote interoperability between federal, state and local entities, as well as enhanced communication between Mexican and U.S. authorities along the Southwest border.

The Office of Emergency Communications also supports Project 25-an open standard developed by public safety professionals that could offer the greatest promise for widespread wireless interoperability. P25 is a Telecommunications Industry Association standard for manufacturing interoperable two-way wireless communications products.

But building a standards-based system will take many years and a lot of funding, as federal agencies and law enforcement organizations wait for legacy technology to run its course. In the meantime, Hitch and Mark Borkowski, executive director for DHS' Secure Border Initiative, recommend that organizations establish an operations framework that would allow them to integrate interoperable communications equipment.

"Technology investments go on, but without a concept of operations to act as a guide, they go on with no end," says Borkowski, adding that such projects must have clear objectives.

What are the primary functions of the system? Who are the users and stakeholders? How do they operate both under normal circumstances as well as in exceptional situations? Will users be able to turn on interoperability when they need it, and turn it off when they don't? The answers to these questions are crucial to developing any wireless communications system.

"It's fine to talk about integration, but it has to be done in such a manner that you're able to get what you need and communicate with who you need to communicate with, but not tie up lines by opening [access] to everyone," Martin says.