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'Smart' radio may keep fire, police conncted

By Martha McKay
The Record

BERGEN COUNTY, N.J. — For those who don't work in the emergency response field, it may come as a surprise that most of the nation's 18,0000 law enforcement agencies and 26,000 fire departments can't communicate with each other over the radio.

Vincent Stile thinks it's a mess.

"It's been a major issue for a number of years," said Stile, chairman of the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council and a retired director of police radio communications for Suffolk County, N.Y.

The Sept. 11 attacks highlighted the problem.

According to the National Task Force on Interoperability, police received radio warnings to evacuate the World Trade Center but firefighters did not. And reports later blamed the deaths of 343 firefighters in part on the lack of interoperability - they couldn't hear what the police heard.

A huge effort is under way to fix the problem, including a joint project among Bergen, Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island, as well as New York City, Stile said.

Advances in technology also may help

A group of developers at Stevens Institute's Wireless Network Security Center recently came up with a potential solution they hope to market through a start-up called Attila Technologies, LLC.

It's essentially a super-powered cellphone. Known as an intelligent radio, or software-defined radio, the units are able to scour the airwaves and find unused frequencies, switching to another frequency if the airwaves become crowded.

The Attila radio "allows you to find what [portion of the airwaves] is available to transmit over," said Helena Wisniewski, Attila's chairman and vice president of Stevens' technology initiatives office.

The Attila radio (invented by the center's director, Patrick E. White, and researcher Nicholas Girard) uses software to skip through a wide range of radio frequencies, making it highly secure - a feature that may be attractive for military use.

"As with any start-up, one challenge is to build credibility that the device really does work as advertised," said Wisniewski.

Attila is planning a field test with police in Morris County this month, and the company has prototypes ready to test, as well as a memo of understanding with a large handset manufacturer, she said.

There are other uses for Attila radios, but the first target market will be the emergency workers.

Stile said software-defined radios "have a lot of possibility." But, he said hurdles remain, such as the lack of airwaves reserved for emergency use.

For Bergen County Police Capt. Kevin Hartnett, the communications problems are always evident at major disasters.

During the crash of a plane on takeoff from Teterboro in February, agencies had to relay messages in some cases through two or three dispatchers to reach officers positioned just a short distance away.

The county police recently bought a unit that will allow them to communicate over local police frequencies.

It's so big it takes up the entire back of a Ford Expedition, said Hartnett.

So would he like a small handset that would enable agencies to talk directly? "It would be extremely helpful," he said.

Copyright 2008 The Record

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