The need to provide first responders with an improved system for interoperable communications remains an urgent national priority, despite the painful lessons of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Even with the attention being paid to interoperability, emergency officials around the country cannot be confident they'll be able to communicate with each other when they need to most.
Consider just a few recent examples:
- Emergency officials in West Virginia were hampered by "rampant" communication problems in their response to a fatal explosion at a chemical factory last summer, according to public hearings.
- Last year, Congress criticized the U.S. Capitol Police for failing to upgrade its radio system. Officers have complained about dead spots where they cannot call for backup or, more importantly, reach Washington, D.C. police.
- Last year, an investigation by a Pittsburgh television station documented repeated communication failures at suburban police and fire departments. One police sergeant told the station he often has trouble hearing his own officers.
These types of problems are disconcerting given the growing complexity of U.S. homeland security. More and more missions now call for a joint response, where disparate agencies are thrust together - often in the heat of the moment. No one can truly predict the nature and location of the next big emergency.
The recent wildfires in California, for example, involved police, fire and emergency medical units from a range of jurisdictions, as well as the National Guard. U.S. border and coastal areas in places such as Miami and San Diego require the sustained coordination of federal immigration and drug enforcement agencies, as well as state and local law enforcement. Even the search for a lost child demands an integrated response. Currently, local, state, federal and tribal agencies need to have the capability to work closer together with law enforcement, public safety, fire response, search and rescue and border protection.
The realities of daily operations with overlapping jurisdictions call for more communications flexibility. The U.S. government has approximately 100 agencies and 200,000 agents and officers, with large areas of responsibility - the U.S. Coast Guard alone is responsible for 95,000 miles of coastline. At the same time, there are more than 48,000 agencies and 2.5 million first responders at various state and local levels. While roughly half of these agencies use the VHF high frequency band to communicate, the other half are widely fragmented across the VHF low, UHF low, UHF high, 700-MHz and 800-MHz frequency bands.Connecting the bridge
In an event requiring joint response from agencies operating on different frequency bands, communication is only possible through ad-hoc network bridges, gateways or radio swaps.
But, in situations involving damage to infrastructure and widespread loss of power, such as Hurricane Katrina, those network switching protocols become useless - leaving personnel isolated and unable to coordinate their work. Radio swapping or radio caches represent potential solutions, but these have proven to be costly and ineffective in providing direct interoperability. These approaches also require additional training and logistical planning, and tie up money that could be used elsewhere.
Multiband software-defined radios are a superior solution to the nation's interoperability challenges. These radios support communications across multiple frequency bands, including VHF, UHF, 700 MHz and 800 MHz, as well as multiple modes, including analog/digital, narrowband/wideband and modes with different encryption algorithms.