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Government Makes a Big Announcement, Takes One Big Step Towards Interoperability

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By Leischen Stelter

Today wraps up the final day of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International conference in Minneapolis, Minn. This conference is a gathering of public-safety communications officials from around the country who discuss some of the most pressing issues in communication and evaluate potential technology solutions.

Some of the biggest news coming out of the conference was an announcement from the Department of Homeland Security that it had concluded a pilot project for Multi-Band Radios (MBR). As part of the pilot, DHS distributed more than 100 MBRs to 15 federal, state and local agencies, reported Homeland Security Today. The primary goal of the project was to get one (big) step closer to solving the problem of interoperability by providing first responders with a single device that could communicate with other agencies or jurisdictions, regardless of the radio band.

MBR radios can communicate in bands between 136 and 870 MHz, crossing VHF and UHF bands as well as 700 MHz and 800 MHz spectrum and has the potential to communicate with other federal defense and civilian bands when authorized, according to an article in Government Technology

One of the interoperability tests included the use of MBRs during the two-week New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in June 2011. This event was attended by more than 400,000 people and gave local responders an opportunity to test the multi-band radios, according to this article in Emergency Management magazine.

It probably goes without saying that interoperability is one of the biggest challenges for first responders, especially after Sept. 11, 2011.  But, out of all tragedies, comes lessons, and the government has taken fairly large–albeit not necessarily speedy—steps to solve this interoperability issue, including this pilot project. You can see the list of those agencies receiving agencies and deploying multi-band radios here.

In other communication-related news, I read this article in Homeland Security News about a research project that “knit” together wireless routers from homes and offices to provide emergency responders with a communications system to be used when the mobile phone network fails.

The increasing prevalence of these devices (I would guess most homeowners and nearly all businesses have wireless routers in place) makes it plausible that fire services, ambulance and police could put an emergency mesh network together using personal routers to give them Internet access if cellular networks are down.

To combat the inevitable issue of privacy, the researchers say that routers often incorporate an emergency “switch” that responders can activate to set up a backup network, that wouldn’t impede on the privacy of the owner of the router. Granted, this study was done in Germany, so who knows the challenges of doing such a thing in the U.S., but I thought it was certainly a noteworthy.

What are your thoughts? Do you have high hopes that one day your agency will be equipped with a single device to allow you to communicate with other responding agencies (without carrying multiple radios or swapping radios on the scene)? What are some of the other communication challenges you face on a regular basis that needs to be addressed?

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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