As the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies have pursued the long-standing goal of interoperable communications between first responders during times of crisis, a company has been slowly building a nationwide network using the Internet.
Mutualink Inc., a Wallingford, Conn.-based firm, saw its system tested during Hurricane Sandy last year. Prior to that catastrophic storm, it had already signed up dozens of clients in New Jersey.
The problem with the interoperability vision that the federal government has pursued over the past decade is that it doesn’t go far enough, said company President Colin McWay.
DHS has a list of 18 critical infrastructure sectors. Many of these entities want to be informed as to what is happening or to share information they may have, he said.
Hospitals, power plants, shopping malls and sports stadiums are not normally thought of when it comes to interoperable communications. But in some cases, they may need to be in the loop.
They may have radios of various makes operating on different frequencies, none at all, or have only cell phones. After years of effort, there are only small pockets of first responder communities that are connected, he said. A nationwide system doesn’t exist.
The company’s Interoperable Response and Preparedness Platform allows anyone to join no matter what the communication device.
The system only links those who agree to be connected, and respects the “sovereignty” of agencies that want to maintain control of their systems.
Deciding who can communicate with whom during a crisis is done on a Mutualink website. If a fire or police department from County A wants to link with County B, they can agree, and can also bring others in as well. If County C wants to get in, but is not a Mutualink customer, they could still participate, but only through a cell phone, he said.
In the years after Hurricane Katrina, many vendors were selling “boxes” that allowed various agencies with different radios to communicate. The problem was that one organization always had control of that box and the switches. If it was the fire department, for example, the police were reluctant to give up control.
“There are any number of reasons you don’t want to cede control of your essential communications to someone else,” McWay said.
With this Internet-based system, entities are mutually agreeing to form a network. In the case of a shopping center shooting, they could bring mall security guards and the closed-circuit video feeds from inside the building into the network.
During Hurricane Sandy, casinos in Atlantic City were able to share their video streams of rising floodwaters with emergency responders. Hospitals using the system were also able to share information with the New Jersey Regional Operations and Intelligence Center.
The company is looking at submitting proposals to states where thousands of different organizations can be part of the system. That might cost as little as $20 million. That is a good value, he asserted.
“Even just putting a county radio system in these days could cost you $50 million,” he said.
Of course, all of this depends on having Internet connectivity. The Internet was inaccessible in several areas during Sandy.
The company recommends that customers have back-up generators and satellite links that work when terrestrial systems fail. An internal report produced after the hurricane showed that agencies with multiple, redundant systems never lost the ability to communicate over the system.
“The Internet never goes down, just your connectivity to it,” McWay said.
Photo Credit: Mutualink