Emergency First Responders Suffer from Lack of Interoperable Communications Equipment

Broadband Updates, Broadband's Impact, Mobile Broadband, States, Wireless May 28th, 2010

, Reporter-Researcher, BroadbandBreakfast.com

WASHINGTON, May 28, 2010 – Emergency first responders should be able to use similar technological standards on their equipment so that they can effectively communicate during times of crisis, but rapidly evolving technology makes it difficult to stay in sync, said experts at a Thursday House hearing.

Although Project 25 was initiated about 20 years ago to enable firefighters, police officers and other similar personnel from different counties to communicate regardless of their equipment’s age or manufacture, problems remain.

The House Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation addressed issues surrounding Project 25, which surfaced during and after events like Hurricane Katrina, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and other such disasters because the first responders to those events could not communicate because of differing types of communications equipment.

Subcommittee Chairman David Wu, D-Ore., said: “This lack of interoperability has contributed to the deaths of first responders and hindered the ability to rescue people in harm’s way.”

Wu asked the witnesses why, if even toasters have to be tested for compliance, hasn’t Project 25 prevented the lack of interoperability for the first responders to New York’s now-demolished twin towers and the Louisiana Bayou hit by hurricanes.

David Boyd, director of command, control and interoperability at the Science and Technology Directorate for the Homeland Security Department, said the technology has changed dramatically since Project 25 was started in 1989, and that departments have equipment that they cannot simply throw away. The expensive equipment functions, even if it can’t interoperate, he said.

Buying new equipment at the cost of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money is something that won’t be tolerated, said Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb.

Ernest Hofmeister, a senior scientist for Harris Corp., said the safety industry is different. For example, in safety communications they sell thousands of units, not millions like the cell phone industry.

Cell phones have come four generations to their present 4G connections, and the compliance standards that have worked for that industry function not only because of the millions of dollars spent on units, but because of the millions of users demanding them, he said.

Dereck Orr, program manager for public safety communications systems for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said: “There are four main issues with Project 25 that are hampering progress toward seamless interoperability and open competition: Standards for all eight interfaces are not published, only a portion of Project 25 systems are standards based, it isn’t clear to public safety agencies what a Project 25 system entails, and there is no industry-led formal compliance program.”

The European Union has an international set of standards, called Terrestrial Trunked Radio – or TETRA, a radio standard developed by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute for public safety and government.

Hofmeister and John Muench, director of business development for Motorola, opposed this model because they said the industry should develop standards so that government-imposed rules would not hinder the industry’s innovation and progress, and Wu said this could be accomplished without a mandate.

Muench added that, if there were to be a government mandate, there would be a significant cost barrier to a new company trying to break into the industry.

Orr said that there has been significant progress made in the last two months on interoperability issues. There has been “a renewed willingness within the P25 standards body to actively participate in the identification of relevant conformance tests,” he said.

Hofmeister and Muench said their companies have been conducting interoperability tests in the development stages the whole time. They said that the problem is that when a customer is about to purchase the product and asks about compatibility with surrounding stations, those other stations’ “zeroes and ones” may not line up.

This programming can only be done in the developmental stage. Since the specific compatibility was not sought for during that stage, it was not programmed.

Boyd said that there should be a core set of functionalities that will give the industry a path to follow, and the P25 standard some reliability.

Jeffrey Johnson, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and chief of the Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue in Aloha, Ore., said police chiefs rely on each other when they check for interoperability, and that because of the competitive bid system, they don’t pay “til it works.” He said that there is trust in the P25 standard, but that there must be improvement.

Johnson suggested the allocation of the D-block of broadband specifically for emergency personnel, a block he noted that Congress plans to auction off to the private sector.

Muench said: “When a police or fire department orders a public safety radio and network, Motorola does not simply perform the installation and walk away;” that the industry will continue to develop the P25 standard.

According to Muench and Hofmeister, the original P25 goals have been met. However, there is still no complete interoperability, for various reasons.

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