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For First Responders, High-Tech Communications Still Out of Reach 


By Stew Magnuson 

LOS ANGELES — The twin disasters of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina highlighted the need for first responders from different jurisdictions and agencies to have working radio links. But years later, it has become apparent that there won’t be any “magic box” solution coming from the federal government that will instantly make the problem go away.

Meanwhile, civilians are connecting to the Internet, sending text messages, pictures, and now, rudimentary videos through the airwaves with handheld digital devices.

First responders are beginning to see some of this technology — common in high school hallways — make its way into their hands. But they are wary. Vendors have sold them communications systems that didn’t perform as advertised. And if they buy one system, what guarantee is there that the adjoining jurisdiction will do the same?

Funds are also limited, said Lt. Michael Manning, northern field manager of Vermont’s department of public safety. Interoperable communications are his most pressing need. “If you buy one [system], you have to give up another,” he said at a recent homeland security science and technology conference.

Luke Klein-Bernrdt, chief technology officer at the Department of Homeland Security’s office of interoperability and compatibility said, “There’s not going to be one box the federal government mandates that’s going to solve everyone’s problems.”

Various jurisdictions have different radio communication needs — what works in the mountains of Vermont doesn’t work on the high plains of Montana or the urban canyons of New York City, officials said at the National Defense Industrial Association-sponsored conference.

One of the vendors attempting to put today’s technology into the hands of first responders is Future Concepts of San Dimas, Calif.

Its president and chief executive officer, Wayne Tolosa, said true interoperability is a common operating picture — in other words — the ability for all the parties responding to an emergency to have a screen with the same information.

But the world of first responders is built on radios. “You need information, you need to filter it, organize it and use it. Radios … don’t process information,” he said. “Radios don’t manage information. They’re just a voice conduit. That’s it.”

That may be tough to accept for some old school police officers, firefighters and others who have spent their careers communicating by voice, he said. Nevertheless, the technology is available, and was used in Los Angeles County during the wildfires that swept through the region in October.

The Los Angeles regional common operational picture program has bought into Tolosa’s way of thinking and purchased the company’s Antares X mobile command and control system. The alliance of eight police and fire department jurisdictions has agreed to buy one system of command and control vehicles and static centers. The eight include major agencies such as the Long Beach fire and police departments, Los Angeles fire and police departments and L.A. County sheriffs. They have purchased 18 systems so far and installed them in trucks ranging in size from Chevy Tahoes to semis.

Los Angeles County serves as both a reminder of the importance of interoperable communications and the difficulty of achieving it. It has about every type of terrain — mountains, seashores, two islands, marshland, mountain valleys, two major ports, a downtown populated with skyscrapers, and 88 incorporated municipalities with about 8.8 million residents packed into 2,653 square miles, according to county statistics.

At the same time, it is has been both the target of terrorist plots and is prone to natural disasters such as the October wildfires. A major earthquake centered in downtown could surpass Hurricane Katrina in terms of destruction, experts have said.

Paul Miller, a detective in Los Angeles Police Department’s major crimes division, said “it’s the first time you have this many agencies agreeing to the same system … It’s never been done anywhere else in the country that I’m aware of,” he said while sitting in one of the command and control centers that had been fitted into a recreational vehicle.

In the past, agencies would have had to park their command and control vehicles next to each other. Information had to be hand carried, usually on paper maps, between officers.

Now these vehicles can be located anywhere and collaborate by seeing the same picture.

The system tracks the number of officers, first responders or firefighters on the scene.

“It’s hard enough trying to figure out where your own people are, let alone figuring out where everybody else is [from other agencies],” he said.

Remote sensors also feed the common operating picture. In the recent fires, cameras were placed in strategic positions, so the fire department could immediately tell pilots dumping flame retardant or water from aerial assets whether they missed or not.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department used geo-spatial mapping to project where the fires were heading so they could notify residents in their paths and then set up evacuation routes.

Miller said the fire response is only one example of how the system can be used. Along with emergency response, he foresees a role for the program in the investigative realm. If there were a bombing, the operation centers would allow him to collect evidence in real time.

As the information comes in, he can choose how much of it he wants to push down to lower levels. Not all information gathered in an investigation should be released. But if there were mug shots of possible suspects, he could transmit them out to other jurisdictions.

What digital devices these mug shots would appear on is the next piece of the puzzle.

Work continues on bringing the technology now found on the new generation of so-called “super phones” to first responders.

Juan Deaton, a cellular systems engineer at the Idaho National Laboratory, said the public safety communications device of the future should have a small “qwerty” keyboard for sending texts, a camera for transmitting pictures, a stylus and a touch screen function. It should have wireless broadband connections — possibly using such systems as WiFi or WiMax. Other functions could include automatic notifications back to headquarters if a weapon has been fired. Or the ability to collect and transmit biometric information such as fingerprints. And each device should cost less than $500, he added.

The National Center for Biodefense Communications, located at Jackson State University in Mississippi, is using DHS science and technology directorate grant money to run several pilot programs investigating how to use this cutting edge technology.

First responders may be familiar with such devices. Vendors have sold them PDAs that modeled the progress of floods, for example, but these devices could only be used for one kind of incident and they couldn’t share information, said the center’s Elizabeth Matlack.

“And all pretty much presumed that the user would have a technician or [geo-information system] specialist in their pocket or readily available to them, which rarely happens,” she said.

The center’s “all hazards” common operating picture for emergency management program is testing handheld communicators tied to remote servers that generate information for all kinds of disasters using geo-spatial mapping and standardized modeling.

For example, if a state trooper comes across a chemical spill on the highway, he can choose the “hazmat” icon, tap into weather data giving wind speeds and direction, and have a plume model on his screen within seconds. More importantly, he can share the data with anyone using the system. The fire department, or other agencies, could then decide which houses need to be evacuated.

For large scale disasters, they can track what shelters are opening and closing, the availability of beds, then transmit the information in real time to the public.

Damage assessment, tracking search and rescue crews, the location of homes and business during a flood, are among the applications.

The trick, said Dave Kehrlein, a consultant with ESRI Professional Services, which is assisting on the project, is that the data and models are generated in a remotely located server.

“You don’t have the processing power at this stage of the game, and probably for the next five to 10 years, for local devices to run models. Something else has to do that for you,” he said. Several servers need to be set up in case one goes down, he noted.

Data can be generated, sent out and shared from command posts or field operation centers, dispatchers, or at local, state and federal levels. Once data is captured, it can be passed up or down the line, he said.

“We’re kind of flip flopping the data feed. Putting digital data, gathering and distribution down at the field level rather than the office,” Kehlein said.

Consumers are seeing advertisements for video gathered and transmitted from their “super phones” and that can be a useful tool as well, first responders said at the conference.

In one scenario a police officer arriving at a fire first could relay a video to a fire company so the fire fighters can know the type of building or what floor the incident is located on, and all before they arrive on the scene.

Another S&T directorate pilot program being developed by Reality Mobile of Herndon, Va., can send real-time video between handheld phones. They allow multiple users — for example undercover officers keeping a suspect under surveillance — to link images so they can see what is on each other’s screens. The videos can also be sent back to a headquarters or command and control vehicles. Researchers have initially targeted the program for air marshals who may want to covertly track a suspect through an airport.

These are rudimentary videos — basically a series of digital images taken at three to four frames per second intervals. “You’re not going to win any Academy Awards for the film coming out of this,” noted Brian Geoghegan, chief product officer at Reality Mobile.

When and if these new devices proliferate through the first responder communities, the data will need to move through the airwaves.

Deaton said WiFi and WiMax provide faster data rates and can tie directly into the Internet. However with WiFi, there are “significant security concerns,” he said. It also has limited range and mobility. WiMax has a longer range, provides better security and allows for seamless transitions if first responders are moving from one communication tower’s coverage area to another. WiMax is not as developed, though, and there are few networks currently available, he noted.

The Federal Communications Commission will also open up to public safety agencies segments of the 700-megahertz frequency band, which will become vacant when television stations stop broadcasting analog signals in February 2009.

“Who’s going to be that service provider” to the first responder community? Deaton asked. There are companies selling networking equipment and companies selling airtime, but no one selling both on a nationwide basis.

“We may see somebody coming out with a mobile virtual network that may offer that entire package who will sign a contract with a cellular operator to provide these kinds of services to first responders,” he said. It could be a nonprofit or an organization spun out of the federal government, he added.

Meanwhile, as the new world of first responder communications approaches, officials said they don’t want to be sold a bill of goods on new devices that don’t work as advertised.

“We do not want to rely on manufacturers’ sales pitches for our equipment,” said Chief Robert Ingram, branch chief for weapons of mass destruction at the New York City Fire Department and chairman of the InterAgency Board for Equipment Standardization. New communications technology needs to be field tested by third parties, he added.

Klein-Bernrdt agreed. “We want to see how this works in the field. A lot of this stuff works great in the lab but when you start kicking tires, you find some of these claims don’t live up,” he said.

The office has released two reports to give communities guidelines and case studies on how to improve interoperable communications. The reports have concluded that all these fancy new devices won’t be successful if the first responders using them don’t know how to operate them.

Leadership that can affect change, and who has control of the purse strings, must be in place to push reform through to those resistant to new technology. And training is key. A police officer should spend as much time training on communication gear as he does on the shooting range, he said.

“If it’s not a solution you’re using day to day, then it might not work when you need it,” Klein-Bernrdt said.

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