Interoperable communications in the palm of your hand

First, some background. Since the 1990’s, Public Safety and Federal radio communications spectrum requirements have increased dramatically as the need for more communication talk paths, more data channels, and more connectivity is required by a growing universe of government agencies and first responders.

To keep up with this voracious appetite for additional channels, talk groups, and network capacity, the U.S. Federal Communication Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Agency have allocated spectrum in a variety of different frequency bands from 30-870 MHz. The first band was 30-50 MHz, which is still in use today by many agencies. Then, a progressive series of bands at higher frequencies was released from 136-174 MHz, 402-420 MHz, 450-470 MHz, 470-520 MHz, 800 MHz, and, most recently, 380-400 MHz and 700 MHz bands. Each band has been accessed using a separate, specific, single-band radio. The traditional RF components and radio design approaches limited an economically-viable design to a single band for each portable radio.


The tragic events of the Oklahoma City Bombing; September 11, 2001; Hurricane Katrina; and the Minnesota Bridge Collapse brought communications interoperability into the focus of government agencies across the nation. Existing solutions just did not work. Although patching and switching equipment was available, and there was a common over-the-air standard under the APCO Project 25 (P25) effort, there were still no single transceivers available that could operate in all of the bands. It remained common for incident commanders and personnel to be carrying two, three, or even four radios in order to communicate with each other.

What will the right solution look like? Technology advancements and software-defined radio (SDR) techniques developed for the military now make it possible to have a single, portable multi-band radio (MBR) that operates on all of the primary Public Safety frequency bands as well as bands used by the Department of Defense (DoD), Federal Agencies, and Marine frequencies used on the waterways. This new type of portable radio will also allow multi-mode operation on older legacy analog FM systems, newer P25 digital systems (both trunked and conventional), and will operate in both clear and encrypted modes using P25-specified 256 bit key Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) encryption.


Using a new MBR, you can define Channel 1 for a regional P25 trunking system, Channel 2 for a VHF analog channel used by a local volunteer fire department, Channel 3 for a UHF EMS frequency, Channel 4 for a P25 digital Federal Government frequency, and Channel 5 for a 700 MHz trunked system in a bordering municipality. Now, you truly have “communications interoperability in the palm of your hand” and a new tool to coordinate multi-agency response across multiple land mobile radio (LMR) systems.


With 2.2 million first responders in the U.S. today, it is the expectation that each one will be able to connect with other personnel on scene, as well as with their dispatch centers, with clear, reliable voice and data communications. Lives are at stake, and the radio is an essential tool to accomplish the mission. In many cases, their needs go beyond this traditional use, and radio communications are used to coordinate the response of Law Enforcement, EMS, Fire, Transportation, and Federal Agencies as they team to manage, direct, and give aid at terrorist incidents, large sporting events, or natural disasters. The MBR can be a useful tool in the coordination of multiple agency resources for these large regional events


Many Law Enforcement agencies are involved in special task force operations. These groups successfully combine the resources and unique expertise of a variety of agencies and personnel to address specific criminal elements and threats. The MBR creates a tool that allows these groups to operate and share channels on their home systems as well as new systems to which they may travel for support.


What other capabilities would an MBR solution bring to help us meet our interoperability challenges? First, being able to take advantage of existing infrastructure and also operate without infrastructure is key. The right solution would bridge between established regional P25 trunked systems and conventional radio users from adjacent municipalities using other bands.


Flexible deployment is also essential, e.g., the ability to serve a single incident commander, a group of commanders, all squad leaders, and/or every team member as required. This means that communications interoperability improvements could be delivered across the broad cross-section of users, from the smallest rural agencies to the largest urban systems.


Ease of use is a priority as well. The radio must be easy to operate and be quick to deploy. The familiarity that users would have with MBR technologies used in day-to-day operations would, in crisis situations, be life-saving.


With maximum spectrum utilization, local users who have moved to 800 MHz systems, but have kept older VHF and UHF conventional frequencies for back-up, would be able to access all of these bands for additional talk paths. Federal users who have been frustrated by VHF spectrum crowding are now free to use the 402 to 420 MHz band along with their traditional VHF channels in a single portable radio.


Many government agencies have created caches of portable radios maintained, preprogrammed, and at the ready to use for incidents and natural disasters. The MBR is perfect for this application as it gives the users the ability to reach out to other responding agencies regardless of band. In addition, if radio system infrastructure is destroyed or off the air, the user has the ability to connect in alternative frequency bands that are still operational.


A well-defined set of mutual aid channels, now with standardized channel names, exists nationwide for Public Safety and Federal Agency communications interoperability. This new radio will be able to host these channels in all of the major frequency bands to create immediate multi-agency communications links at an incident scene.


Technology is only part of the interoperability solution. Well-developed communications plans for incidents, natural disasters, and multi-agency cooperation at large public events are essential. Training for personnel at all levels is required to prepare in advance. Memoranda of Understanding for shared channels between agencies and operations are now in place in many regions of the country to support these plans.


In addition, radio manufacturers must be committed to formal testing and to ensuring that the most reliable communications equipment is being provided to Law Enforcement. Performance, emissions, intrinsic safe, P25 Compliance Assessment Program (CAP), and encryption are the baseline certifications and approvals that users should look for. The P25 CAP tests, for example, provide a means of verifying that radio equipment meets the P25 standard and will be interoperable in P25 systems. Federal grant dollars are being invested in standardized solutions that promote interoperability for the more than 60,000 emergency response agencies nationwide.


One such solution now in the hands of first responders is Thales Communications’ LibertyTM multi-band, multi-mode, software-defined radio. Thales has leveraged more than 10 years of P25 Public Safety experience and an unequaled SDR technology base serving DoD to develop the Liberty radio.  In early 2008, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Science and Technology Directorate, had awarded a contract to Thales to demonstrate a single MBR that enables emergency responders to communicate with partner agencies, regardless of the radio band on which they operate.  That radio, the Liberty radio, became the first multi-band radio covering the entire Public Safety spectrum to be approved by the FCC.  It operates across all the Public Safety bands (136-174 MHz, 380-520 MHz, 700 MHz, and 800 MHz) and in all modes (P25 conventional, P25 trunked, and legacy analog). It offers Output Feedback Data Encryption Standard (OFB DES) and AES with over-the-air-rekey for secure communications.  Mil Spec rugged, the Liberty radio is submersible to two meters. 


Having undergone operational evaluation during 2009--including use at the Presidential Inauguration, Kentucky Derby, multiple live burns, and other events--the Liberty radio is now being pilot tested under the DHS MBR Program. Each of the participating agencies will conduct a minimum 30-day pilot. The pilots are designed to focus on the capabilities and effectiveness of the technology, with users primarily in a command-and-control role or involved in special operations with multiple entities. Factors such as operating bands, partner agencies and disciplines, interoperable conditions, and geographic landscapes were considered when selecting pilot sites.  Feedback provided by participants of the pilot program will help ensure that true interoperability is delivered to our nation’s first responders. [reference July 1, 2009, DHS press release entitled “DHS Announces Sites for Multi-Band Radio Pilot”]


Yes, Law Enforcement; Local, Federal, and State agencies; and DoD can now communicate across all of the public frequency bands using a single portable radio. Interoperability is in the palm of your hand!