How to buy police communications interoperability products
By David R. Lukeson
Interoperable radio communications allows police, fire, EMS and other first responders to talk to one another during an emergency across agencies and across boundary lines. Achieving interoperability is crucial for the mission-critical communications industry where an interruption in communication can cost lives. Here are a few things to consider when purchasing interoperable communications products:
The industry’s first step towards interoperability meant creating a standards committee consisting of the Association of Public Safety Communications Organization (APCO), the National Association of Communications Directors (NASTD) and federal agencies. The group’s charter is to develop a suite of standards known as Project 25 (P25) to provide guidelines to manufacturers who then develop products that may operate with other manufacturers’ system and product offerings. In doing this, P25 provides not only interoperability between multiple manufacturers but also provides multi-vendor procurement of equipment. This ensures competition and could potentially save agencies thousand of dollars by allowing a competitive procurement process.
To ensure that a manufacturer may interoperate with other agencies’ systems, an initiative called the P25 Compliance Assessment Program (CAP) provides answers. CAP is a testing and verification process in which manufacturers’ products are tested on other manufacturers’ systems in recognized laboratories operated by independent organizations or qualified manufacturers. Some of the testing results of CAP are found on the Response Knowledge Base website (www.rkb.us) hosted by FEMA. However, since all CAP information may not be on this website, it is important to check with the manufacturer with a specific CAP or interoperability question.
To learn basic information about the P25 standards, the P25 Interest Group (www.project25.org) is a great resource. More information on the P25 suite of standards may be obtained by the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), the body responsible for formulating and publishing these standards.
Planning and Flexibility
Although interoperability requires standards-based technology, P25 standards do not define every requirement or feature set of a product. It is the nuances in P25 features, such as roaming and emergency procedures, that may differ depending upon the manufacturer. The standards provide the basis; from there, the manufacturer may add their own innovative ideas into its solution. Therefore, it is important to confirm that a manufacturer’s implementation of features and product configurations that are essential to an agency’s mission have been demonstrated and are in use by peers in user communities of interest.
To further ensure the correct manufacturer is chosen, the agency must plan ahead in purchase decisions. Planning ahead not only means taking a look at the agency’s specific system requirements but also identifying the other systems in which the agency must interoperate. Once a neighboring system is identified, the agency should look at the specifications and options of that system and choose a manufacturer whose products will interoperate with the mix of specifications in the neighboring system. Just because two systems are P25 compliant does not always mean that the radios will interoperate.
Other things to consider are that if you or your neighboring agencies have legacy radios, buying a P25 compliant system won’t necessarily enable instant interoperability. What you will need then is a bridging system to provide the means to patch disparate radios.
There will also be times you will need to interconnect bridging systems across a network. To aid in the acquisition of bridging systems there is a Public Safety VOIP Working Group sponsored by the DHS Safecom program. They have established a BSI (Bridging System Interface) specification.
Getting to know the standards and planning ahead in the procurement processes are important points in the process of purchasing interoperability products. However, possibly the greatest source of information may be found within the public safety user community itself, including industry peers who can give insight into their experiences with different P25 manufacturers and their interoperable solutions.
Finding the Money
Among multiple grant programs for which funding can be used specifically for interoperable communications are the Public Safety Interoperable Communications (PSIC) Grant Program and the Interoperable Emergency Communications Grant Program (IECGP). In 2006, Congress mandated that $1 billion for Public Safety Interoperable Communications be administered by the Department of Commerce. Originally, the program was intended to be a one-time opportunity, but the newest authorizing statute for homeland security has extended the program — now called the Interoperable Emergency Communications Grant Program — through 2012.
Furthermore, funding for the acquisition of interoperable communications infrastructure can be sought through the Homeland Security Grant Program (HSGP), a wide-reaching program that funds planning, organization, equipment, training, and exercise activities in support of the National Preparedness Guidelines and related plans and programs. Several such programs are the National Incident Management System (NIMS), National Response Framework (NRF), and the National Infrastructure Protection Plan (NIPP). Tying your community’s need to build a robust interoperable system to any such funds should not be terribly difficult.
The money is out there. All the funding sources noted above — even those for which deadlines have passed — are good things to be thinking about for your grant proposals this year, next year, and years into the future. Some of the key things to do as you go forward are:
1. Collaborate with other public safety agencies outside your jurisdiction in making your proposals
2. Tie the stated objectives of the grant for which you are applying directly to your strategy.
3. Be creative and think about the ways other agencies within your city or town can be your partner.
4. Press the envelope of "what's possible" because in this game, the most creative are the winners.
5. When in doubt, ask questions — there are many resources available to you so use them!
David Lukeson is the Director, Systems Business Unit at EF Johnson Technologies, Inc. EFJohnson’s product portfolio includes P25 compliant two-way radios, P25 compliant trunked and conventional infrastructure systems, voice encryption modules for all brands of analog two-way radios, and FIPS 140-2 Validated™ secure wireless broadband, mesh and WLAN solutions.