New Multi-Band Radio Key to Interoperable Communications, But Concerns Are Raised About Price

By Stew Magnuson
A world where police, fire, and emergency services can seamlessly communicate with each other over the airwaves has been a dream of the Department of Homeland Security since the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina four years later.

The problem has been local jurisdictions purchased different radio systems from various vendors. Also, different frequencies were allotted as spectrum became more crowded over the last five decades.

The department’s science and technology division, working with radio-manufacturer Thales Communications Inc., set out to solve the technological side of the problem by developing a multi-band radio that can work with legacy radios as well as new software-defined digital systems.

The multi-band radio project works on all the public safety bands, as well as two Defense Department and two federal government bands.

Thales approached DHS in 2006 to see if the work being done on the military’s software-defined joint tactical radio could be applied to the interoperability problem.

DHS wanted a radio that had all the necessary encryption, was simple to use, and was rugged enough to work in the extreme climates found in the United States, said Tom Chirhart, the S&T directorate’s program manager for multi-band radios. It is also about the same size and weight of current radios, and costs about the same per unit at $4,000 to $6,000. The department is currently carrying out pilot programs to show how the system works.

Thales is one of the first to offer a radio commercially, but it is not a proprietary system. Other manufacturers are coming forward to offer their own compatible radios, Chirhart said. “Our goal at DHS was to encourage manufacturers to do so.”

Now, if DHS can only get the approximately 50,000 state, local, tribal police, fire and emergency services departments to buy the radios and swap out all their old systems all at once, the interoperability problem would be solved.

Thales sponsored a webinar for potential users of the system to raise awareness of the new system. It is selling the Liberty land-mobile radio, a product that emerged from its DHS $6.275 million research and development contract.

Dave Dato, chief of the Wauconda, Ill., fire department, acknowledged that local budgets are being squeezed and cash-strapped first responder agencies may not be able to purchase new handsets.

“In some cases, you simply can’t afford it. But you have to look at your own backyard first.”

If an agency is receiving mutual aid from nearby jurisdictions on a daily basis, then they might want to push the budget envelope and find funding by any means necessary, he said. Other more isolated agencies may not need the radios, he said.

There are numerous state and federal grant programs that could help with costs. They may also consider just buying a few sets first so key personnel in a department have the capability to communicate. He likened it to buying a million-dollar ladder truck. It may not get used every day, but it is there when you need it.

Topics: Homeland Security, Emergency Communications

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