Disparate Solutions Work To Fill Communications Gap
Rather than a unified approach, the watershed funding for reliable and interoperable communications has led to commercial and proprietary solutions based on a range of wireless technologies.
ED Online — ID #19184
More than seven years have passed since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Since that time, the world has witnessed the subway bombings in the UK, the train bombings in Spain, and multiple other attacks. Government agencies have boosted their resources to gather more intelligence and prevent such attacks. In addition, they continue to emphasize the need for interoperable communications. Problems with communications continue to arise during emergencies — in particular between different agencies (local, state, federal, etc.). Instead of a grand revamping of this country’s public-safety communications infrastructure and corresponding equipment, agencies have received somewhat sporadic upgrades. To fill the holes in communication stemming from both the networks and the radios, a number of companies have devised solutions that utilize wireless technologies, satellite communications, or Internet-protocol (IP) approaches.
Most “civilians” imagine that government agencies have proprietary, super-intelligent, futuristic networks that never fail. Yet the fact is that these agencies often have outdated equipment and their networks exhibit problems or fail to meet the agencies’ needs during disasters. As a result, the agencies’ best option is often to upgrade using an existing—and even commercial-based—solution. The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), for example, recently chose Verizon Business (www.verizonbusiness.com) to build and manage a secure, global IP network. Through an agreement valued at $678.5 million over 10 years, Verizon Business will serve as primary service provider under the DHS OneNet program. It will help the 22 agencies that make up the DHS combine multiple, separate wide-area networks onto one common and secure IP network.
As part of this program, Verizon Business has committed to implementing a Security Operations Center (SOC) for DHS. It also will employ Emergency Communications Services (ECS)—a new service that is available to all government agencies under the DHS’ Networx Universal task order. ECS will enable the DHS to establish quick, mobile connectivity to any affected area within the US and its territories to help its disaster response and recovery efforts. Networx is the largest federal telecommunication contract ever awarded by the GSA and the federal government. Its goal is to provide federal agencies with a common vehicle for purchasing networking, professional, and technical services.
Although this contract will clearly benefit the DHS, communications between different agencies also remains critical. Here, commercial businesses also offer solutions. In April, for example, AT&T (www.att.com) announced an agreement with Federal Signal Corp. (www.federalsignal.com) to provide a technology platform that can enable instant first-responder notification and interoperable communications across a broad range of communications devices in a crisis situation. Specifically, AT&T will offer Federal Signal’s Codespear SmartMsg Communications Suite. It promises to make mission-critical communications easier, faster, and less expensive with a software-based platform that connects disparate public-safety agencies during emergency situations. Agencies are connected on a broad range of telephone, wireless, pager, two-way-radio, and other communications devices anytime and anywhere.
To provide reliable and effective communications during time-sensitive situations, SmartMsg uses multiple means of notifying users including e-mail and voice-based messages to subscribers’ wired and wireless phones. The application enables first-responder notification with fully integrated two-way voice, data, and video communications as well as data sharing between any agency or jurisdiction—regardless of the communications device or system. The suite also provides streaming-video capabilities and allows participants to monitor video from remote sources. This system can be deployed rapidly in stationary and mobile configurations. It occupies a small footprint and operates on both alternating-current (AC) and direct-current (DC) power.
Although the 9/11 attacks brought communication interoperability problems to light, terrorist attacks are not the only disasters in which such breakdowns can be detrimental. Such problems also are played out in natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina. Because of both its geography and susceptibility to hurricanes, the state of Florida is often at the forefront of disaster preparedness. Florida’s Statewide Law Enforcement Radio System (SLERS), for example, directly links subscribers to the state’s 800-MHz communication system. In doing so, it allows local, regional, state, and federal public-safety agencies to communicate on a single common network. This spring, SLERS added a number of public-safety providers to its list of subscribers. Subscribers include Dade County, Broward County Emergency Management Agency, Hillsborough County, and Sumter County Sheriff’s Offices. The SLERS system is the result of a unique public-private partnership between M/A-COM (www.macom.com), which was just acquired by Cobham plc (www.cobham.com), and the state of Florida. It accommodates more than 6500 users with 14,000 radios in patrol cars, boats, motorcycles, and aircraft wherever they are in the state. The all-digital radio network covers 60,000 square miles (including 25 miles offshore).
In addition, the Florida National Guard Emergency Response Network and National Guard Bureau recently announced the support of AGTFederal’s (www.appliedglobal.com) emergency-response communications systems. These communication command and control vehicles, dubbed Mobile Incident Site Systems, are capable of deployment over ground as well as by air (Fig. 1). They enable the guard to establish and maintain open lines of communications during manmade or natural disasters. The trailers include the latest in secure wireless mesh networking, voice-over- Internet-protocol (VoIP) telephony, video-teleconferencing systems, radio communications, and satellite-communications platforms. With these units, the Florida National Guard can deploy regional and nationwide communications systems that enable any first responders (both Department-of-Defense-affiliated and local, county, or state) to interact between various agencies and entities during real-world emergencies and ongoing training events.
Soon, the Florida National Guard also will have an advanced satellitecommunications network in place. Proactive Communications, Inc. (PCI; www.proactivecommo.com) and Digital Consulting Services (DCS; www.webdcs.com) have announced the completion schedule for the final phase of the Florida National Guard’s mobile Emergency Response Network. The system will be operational by July for the beginning of the Atlantic hurricane season. By adding four air-liftable vehicles to the system, the Emergency Response Network gives the National Guard the ability to rapidly establish a wireless incident-area network that can support first-responder communications at both the state and local level upon arrival at an incident. DCS and PCI are providing advanced satellite-network capabilities via access to a fully meshed satellite network through a satellite hub station. The network, which is not limited to use in Florida, will offer voice, video, and data for emergency-response command and control operations. It also will provide a path for next-generation Comms-on-the-Move (COTM) capabilities.
On the west coast, the city of San Jose, CA has chosen to upgrade its emergency communications with a private microwave-radio network from Harris Stratex Networks, Inc. (www.harrisstratex.com). With this $9.1 million contract, Harris will engineer, install, integrate, and provision this network, dubbed Emergency Communications (ECOMM). The ECOMM digital backbone will link 14 different 9-1-1 call centers in the county. It will therefore enable the high-speed sharing of dispatch services, records databases, and voice traffic. In doing so, it will enable first responders to improve local incident response times and better manage regional incidents. The project is funded by grants from the US Department of Justice and the DHS.
An example of a typical application for the ECOMM network is a unique computer-aided-dispatch (CAD) -to- CAD system. Using this system, a fire dispatcher can immediately identify available resources from adjacent jurisdictions or from previously established, manually managed resource-sharing protocols that could be dispatched in a critical emergency. This kind of rapid response will save valuable time compared with the current practices, which require a series of telephone calls and conversations to identify, request, and confirm the dispatch of resources.
This project also involves the deployment of interoperable, hybrid 700-/150-MHz mobile radio systems. The TRuepoint 6400 and 5000 radios form a flexible digital communications platform that is designed to conserve space while supporting a range of interfaces including TDM, Ethernet, and SONET. The newer TRuepoint 6400 offers standard and high-power transmitter options, which enable administrators to plan flexibly while reducing transmission costs. In addition, interfaces, capacity, and protection switching can be added easily and without interruption to operations. The ECOMM network will eventually link to other interoperable public-safety microwave systems that are being built in the greater San Francisco Bay region. They will extend from Monterey to Sacramento.
Over the last few years, Tyco Electronics’ M/A-COM business unit has armed many first-response agencies with its VIDA network. The VIDA network platform is an IP-based, interoperable radio-communications technology that promises to address the voice and data-communications needs of public-safety-radio users. The platform delivers interoperability without the intervention of console operators, IP consoles, and networking technology for both the P25 phase I and phase II standards. Now, the firm has come out with a high-power broadband-based version of VIDA based on WiMAX technology. The new VIDA Broadband WiMAX base and subscriber stations were specifically designed to support the deployment of 4.9-GHz private broadband networks for utility and public-safety agencies (Fig. 2). Aside from meeting the maximum power output allowed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), they can be combined with directional antennas for extended-range wireless transmissions. The networks can be deployed as simple point-to-point links or in complete point-to-multipoint networks covering larger installations or geographic areas.
With this equipment, utilities and other public-safety agencies can deploy wide-area private WiMAX networks for video surveillance, VoIP radio and telephony applications, and vehicular broadband-network connectivity. The WiMAX IEEE 802.16 standards provide both the Advanced Encryption Standards (AES) and Quality of Service (QoS) features that are required to support such applications. In doing so, they allow multiple public-safety services to co-exist and communicate on a single private network. The VIDA Broadband products operate on the licensed 4.9-GHz spectrum, which is reserved solely for public-safety applications. Yet the FCC has permitted utilities to access this spectrum for public-safety services. According to M/A-COM, utilities can and should use this spectrum to build wireless broadband networks that provide video surveillance of critical infrastructure like nuclear reactors, hydroelectric facilities, or power-transmission substations.
Due to the horror of the London train bombings, it is no surprise that the UK also is heavily vested in keeping its public-safety communications as updated as possible. For example, Northrop Grumman Corp. (www.northropgrumman.com) recently completed a public-safety-network trial in the UK. The trial, which was held in collaboration with NextWave Wireless (www.nextwavewireless.com) and led by the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), aimed to demonstrate how mobile-broadband technology can help to improve the responsiveness of emergency services. Interestingly, it also enabled the real-time transmission of time-sensitive crime-scene forensics.
The trial was initiated through the NPIA’s mobile information programme. It took place in Lewes and was hosted by Sussex Police. At the heart of this trial was a mobile-broadband network powered by TD-CDMA technology from NextWave Wireless. Specifically, NextWave Wireless supplied the TDCDMA Node Bs base stations and related core equipment. It also provided installation, commissioning, and project-management-support services. For its part, Northrop Grumman designed the overall solution and provided project management, system integration services, and technical support for applications including CCTV cameras, shoulder-mounted video cameras, tablet PCs, an ANPR camera, and database control-room facilities.
Through this trial, the Sussex Police were able to test the public-safety solution in an operational setting. The police force used the network to successfully transmit streaming video from fixed and body-worn cameras and moving vehicles—even at speeds greater than 80 mph—to the command station at police headquarters. They also found that the network allowed Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) databases in police cars to be continuously updated in real time. By creating simulated crime scenes, the Sussex Police demonstrated how the network could serve them in managing multiple crime-scene investigations remotely. In such scenarios, they could leverage live video feeds and the rapid transmission of forensic evidence.
To support interoperability across the European Union, a separate project has selected a software-defined-radio (SDR) technology from Spectrum Signal Processing (www.spectrumsignal.com) by Vecima Networks (www.vecimanetworks.com). The European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC) Sensors Radar Technologies and Cyber Security Unit (SERAC) will use Spectrum Signal Processing’s flexComm Waveform Design Studio for the research and development of SDR capability in the Wireless Interoperability for Security (WINTSEC) project. WINTSEC explores a mixture of complementary solutions to overcome the barriers for wireless interoperability across different security agencies. In doing so, it enables first responders with incompatible legacy radios to communicate in a crisis situation. Specifically, the JRC will be using the Waveform Design Studio to support a possible improvement of European Union (EU) communications interoperability in the area of security and first responders. The product also will be used to enhance the understanding of emerging technologies, mesh networks, and wideband communications. Finally, it will be utilized to better assess future threats to critical network infrastructures. The Waveform Design Studio provides an intermediate-frequency (IF) -to-Ethernet solution with complete run-time software including a software communications architecture (SCA) software stack, development-tool suite, system examples, and sample applications.
The Waveform Design Studio incorporates a single Xilinx Virtex-4 field-programmable gate array (FPGA) and multiple Texas Instruments (www.ti.com) TMS320C6416 digital-signal-processing (DSP) devices. They are all interconnected through high-performance communications fabrics, which are integrated into an Intel-based workstation. The Waveform Design Studio supports two receive and two transmit channels at industry-standard 10.7, 21.4, and 70 MHz IF with bandwidths in excess of 30 MHz. It also supports RF to Ethernet for high-frequency (HF) and very-high-frequency (VHF) bands.
These solutions form only a partial list of the wide array of products that have been designed to provide emergency communications while ensuring interoperability. Their range provides an idea of the scope of the technologies upon which such solutions have been built. Although Internet Protocol continues to be a strong basis for some of these networks, wireless solutions ranging from satcom to WiMAX clearly have the greatest potential for immediate deployment in a disaster zone. Yet these disparate solutions were individually created to overcome the problems of traditional public-safety networks. In the event of a grand-scale disaster, the question remains: Are these proprietary solutions capable of working with each other to provide emergency communications across counties, states, and different agencies? Hopefully, the need for such versatility was predicted and has been designed in so that emergency communications are ensured rather than disrupted.