Public Safety Advocate: An Honor, A Correction, DHS Shared Communications Report

Let me start this last Advocate of January by saying I am honored to be nominated as the IWCE  Critical Communications Leader of the Year. The other nominees are all people I respect and are equally deserving of this award. The selection will be made by those who take time to vote and I have included a link to make it easy. Obviously, I would be honored to have your vote but even if you prefer another candidate, please vote. 

Correction to Last Week

I have received emails pointing out a mistake in last week’s article comparing and contrasting Land Mobile Radio (LMR) and FirstNet. And as they say, hindsight is 20-20 and I think there is another important difference which, it appears, will be corrected in the near future.

The correction is to a statement I made about all interoperability channels using Analog FM as the common air interface. One reader who pointed out my mistake said it this way: 

700 MHz LMR interoperability channels (there are 32 of them) utilize the P25 Common Air Interface TIA-102 in their modulation and cannot use analog per FCC rules.  There are some “analog eligible” 700 MHz channels (not designated as “Interoperability Channels”) that were identified in the initial National Coordination Committee (NCC) process in 2000 that acknowledged that in some fire events users would need to communicate direct user to user and the need to do so with P25 modulation would not be practical or effective.

VHF UHF and 800 MHZ Interoperability channels utilize analog FC (TIA-603) n as you stated in your article.”

I appreciate the correction, thank you! I really should have caught my own mistake!

Further, I did not delve into an additional difference between today’s LMR and FirstNet. Today, dispatching is on a one-to-many basis, by precinct, zone, division, or systemwide. This means not only are those directly assigned to the incident made aware of the situation, others in the area are also made aware of the incident. During what may be high-danger assignments, such as domestic disputes and active shooter incidents, it is important that others not assigned to the incident be aware of it and in many cases, law enforcement particularly, tends to head toward the incident in case further assistance is needed.

In this regard, at the moment, Analog FM is probably the best method of one-to-many dispatch. However, in the P25 world, zones, divisions, or precinct members are assigned to a group that essentially provides the same one-to-many notifications and the network is set up for precinct-wide and systemwide communications. FirstNet PTT also supports groups but does not currently support multicast, which is the ability to broadcast to a specific set of cell sites. While this may seem like a minor nit-pick, it is important that FirstNet embrace multicast as soon as possible to provide for better management of voice and data traffic.

Many within the public-safety community, including me, believe it is essential that there be different FirstNet and LTE devices or devices capable of operating in scan mode on LMR while engaged with a FirstNet session. While the reason may not be clear to those who have not been involved in public-safety activities, those who have know one-to-many communications over LMR is a critical requirement for law enforcement and others within the public-safety community. During a dispatch and as an incident unfolds, it is imperative that others in the area hear the dispatch and what is unfolding. By listening to traffic, they are able to move closer to an incident such as a domestic dispute that has the potential to get out of hand. Being aware of who is around you and who is assigned to what type of incident is part of the total communications capabilities of any public-safety communications system. 

SCSI Shared Communications Systems and Infrastructure

Some of you may have seen an article I wrote for Mission Critical Communications by RadioResource Media Group. The article was entitled Public Safety Wireless Communications: A vision and a call to action. The article described my vision of a totally integrated public-safety communications system making use of Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) for incoming incident requests, FirstNet and LMR for voice, text, data, and video, and perhaps the National Public Radio System’s Datacasting. This is an excerpt from that article:

“Back to my vision for public-safety communications. I see multiple communications systems working together to provide seamless communications from the professionals reporting incidents to those dispatched to respond to the incidents. This network of integrated networks is all IP based, so voice, data and video flows freely from one pipe to another, and capacity and voice follow the optimal path to reach first responders.”

After the article was published, someone I have known for a long time who works for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) contacted me and said the article had been forwarded to him by someone else within DHS with the notation, “have we been talking to Andy about our report?” The answer is “No.” I wrote the article because I think this is where we all want to end up.

The Report

Since then, DHS’s group “Cyber + Infrastructure” has released the above-referenced report. It is an important document and its introduction and overview set the stage for the contents.

Introduction

“Across the United States, public safety organizations continue to recognize the value of building communications networks that support multiple agencies and disciplines. The Shared Communication Systems and Infrastructure (SCSI) approach can enable: (1) effective implementation of available communications technologies and techniques; and (2) better utilization and integration of available communications assets in support of day-to-day operations and incident response to help public safety organizations achieve operable, interoperable, resilient, and secure communications.

Overview

Enhancing communications operability and interoperability remains a top priority for the public safety community. As such, first responders nationwide should be encouraged to find ways to collaborate with partners across all levels of government to share infrastructure, equipment, and services through the SCSI approach.

SCSI projects focus on encouraging active resource sharing for organizations with national security, emergency preparedness, and public safety missions. When implemented, these projects can:

  • Increase operability and interoperability
  • Improve spectrum use
  • Optimize resource usage and management
  • Streamline intra-agency and interagency operations
  • Decrease duplication of investments
  • Reduce capital and operations and maintenance (O&M) expenditures
  • Enhance operational coordination and economies of scale”

What lies below this opening is a series of documents available to anyone who wants to read or download them from the website. If you are involved in public-safety communications from the inside as a vendor, consultant, or interested party, I highly recommend you spend some time reading these documents.

The first documents is about SCSI for public-safety communications.

“SCSI PROJECTS OFFER PUBLIC SAFETY ORGANIZATIONS THE CHANCE TO ENHANCE THEIR COMMUNICATIONS OPERABILITY AND INTEROPERABILITY BY SHARING INFRASTRUCTURE, CAPABILITIES, AND SERVICES IN SUPPORT OF THEIR MISSION CRITICAL FUNCTIONS.”

This document then delves into how to initiate and maintain a SCSI project, and it lays out the various elements of this type of project including governance, risk management, resource sharing, and operations. This is followed by a discussion of previous successes citing several examples including one example that makes up much of the main document: Southwest Border Communications working group. A fact sheet goes on to list the next steps required for the success of the project and provides a link to ask questions and solicit answers.

All this leads into the paper discussing SCSI along the southwest border. 

This report is well done. While it is filled with information the public-safety community may already be aware of, it is laid out here in logical steps. The opening of the Executive Summary says this:

Executive Summary

“The objective of this report is to inform decision-makers and leadership across all levels of government1 of the opportunities, challenges, and needed actions to create a Shared Communication Systems and Infrastructure (SCSI) project for federal, state, local, and tribal public safety organizations operating along the Southwest Border.2 Across the United States, public safety organizations3 continue to recognize the value of building communications networks that support multiple agencies and disciplines through SCSI projects. Maintaining separate, siloed communications networks within the current “system of systems” results in inefficient usage and duplicative deployment of resources by agencies, which “often purchase and manage items in a fragmented and inefficient manner, [resulting] in duplication of effort…[and] significant costs.”4 For example, if a responder from one jurisdiction was requested to provide assistance in another part of the state, the responder would be able to continue using their own radio due to the interoperability enabled by the SCSI approach. Current siloed systems may not interoperate, so the responder would need to obtain a new radio or pair with another responder from the home jurisdiction in the newly assigned location, resulting in delays.”

I should note here that this report is not simply about marrying disparate land mobile radio systems, it also recognizes the important role wireless data plays as we move forward. That, of course, is where FirstNet comes into the picture since its charter is to provide nationwide broadband services for all public-safety agencies. 

I find this report to be filled with valuable information that should provide a road map toward integration of NG911, a multiplicity of LMR systems, and the glue that will hold all this together, the Nationwide Public-Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN, or FirstNet). First-phase recommendations are based on guidance and input from regional partners and project-specific resource sharing recommendations include the following:

Recommendation

“• Examine existing emergency communications assets, identify gaps, and streamline decision making processes for resources sharing and maintain inventory of shareable and operationally ready regional assets and resources. 

• Identify and document resource sharing constraints, cost-sharing opportunities, in-kind contributions, and additional funding mechanisms. 

• Collaborate with project partners to determine processes for evaluating system elements and other barriers for sharing. 

• Employ funding and sustainment best practices to ensure longevity of SCSI project efforts. 

• Adopt a flexible sharing framework so that SCSI participants pool resources and incorporate public safety support elements. 

• Be prepared for iterative resource sharing negotiations as additional information on assets becomes available and new partners join the project. 

• Address opportunities to test, evaluate, and integrate with new technologies and capabilities (e.g., IoT, NG911, NPSBN, other carriers’ public safety broadband offerings) into the SCSI project.” 

The next portion of this report deals in depth with security issues, including types of threats, how to build a security plan, and how to conduct a vulnerability assessment. This information is from the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) and includes its cybersecurity framework

There is a great deal information in this report. The Conclusion outlines the key factors for success. 

Conclusion

“• Modernization of existing emergency communications infrastructure, via near- and long-term continuous funding; and 

• Partnership among FSLT (Federal, State, Local, Tribal). agencies and their non-governmental counterparts.”

This conclusion is followed by an appendix providing guidance on writing a memorandum of understanding and an appendix on additional SCSI project resources. The final appendix is for all of us who would fail the three-letter-or-more acronym test and it is a great reference for all. I have printed a copy for my own use and for my editor.

All in all, this is an exceptional report and I encourage everyone interested in how to realize the vision of a fully-integrated communications platform for public safety based on common IP interoperability and high security that will serve the community for years to come to read the complete report. 

Winding Down

In the last six months or so, I have been involved with a number of smaller counties, cities, and towns. In many cases they are still using Analog FM, which has served them well, but their equipment often needs to be updated or upgraded. At the same time, they are looking for ways to increase their coverage and fill in dead spots. They are also making use of FirstNet or are planning to, and investigating the best ways for their LMR system to interoperate with FirstNet for at least push-to-talk without breaking the bank. Some reach out to consulting firms, often large, well-known companies with lots of experience. 

I don’t have an issue with them using a consulting firm of their choice. However, I have been amazed by some of the reports created by consulting firms that I have been given to read. It appears that many of them are so focused on P25 Trunked systems that they are recommending them to these smaller areas and entities. From my perspective, this is overkill and will end up costing these customers a lot of money they simply don’t have. It makes more sense to understand what they are using today, what their needs are for the future, and find the most cost-effective solution to meet their goals. P25 is not the be-all, end-all of public-safety communications. 

For example, in some areas of California, most fire agencies except for the larger cities are still using VHF Analog FM. This makes sense when you understand that the U.S. Forest Service, which currently responds to wildland fires along with Cal Fire and local agencies, are all on VHF Analog FM. The handhelds and mobiles have many channels that are coordinated so each department has its own channels. However, by changing to a new group of channels a department can communicate with almost any other fire agency in the state. The only way I see to change this is for the state or federal government to fund a massive effort to upgrade all these departments to another technology during the same period of time.

Is this really the best answer or does it make more sense to continue to use Analog FM? Changing to another technology would cost millions and millions of dollars that no agency has, and neither the state nor the feds want to foot the bill. If one department changes to a digital technology and still needs to work with surrounding departments, it has only two choices: convince the others to also change over or carry two radios or multiband radios capable of its new digital system, and Analog FM when there is a need to work with other agencies. 

Simply because something is new does not make it better. Sometimes there are other reasons to not rush out and upgrade to the latest and greatest. Sometimes there are practical reasons for keeping what you have and perhaps upgrading equipment using the same technology. As we move toward what DHS and others have said makes sense in the future, there are ways to interoperate between different technologies. We do it now between LMR and FirstNet, there is no reason we cannot do it between Analog FM, P25 Conventional, P25 Trunked and even Digital Mobile Radio (DMR) if required (some companies make bridges to do exactly that). This becomes much easier if, when systems are upgraded, they use an IP backend. Once all the various networks are IP-based, it will not matter which air interface is used, everyone will be able to communicate with everyone else. 

I hope some of the smaller counties, cities, and towns will question whether what their consultants are telling them is the best course of action for them to take. It is easy to become convinced that there is only one answer to solve a problem and that solution is not to upgrade a twenty-year-old system. We need to ensure what we propose provides public-safety agencies with access to the best tools to do their job and not oversell. Money is tight, technology is rapidly changing, and with FirstNet as an overlay, there are better ways to accomplish LMR communications than force-fitting everyone into a P25 Trunked system.

Until Next Week…

Andrew M. Seybold
©Andrew Seybold, Inc. 2020

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2 Comments on "Public Safety Advocate: An Honor, A Correction, DHS Shared Communications Report"

  1. Mr Randy Kaminsky | January 30, 2020 at 7:24 pm | Reply

    Andy, About five years ago I designed a countywide, 4 site simulcast P25 system where the system controller would reside in the next county over at a site different than the one that housed their main controller (using the same make and model) therefore allowing seamless roaming on each others systems. Since the controllers were at different locations, but on the same linked LAN, we would both enjoy redundancy as well. Fiber and microwave was specified to assure uninterrupted operation. In dire circumstances, each system could fall back to local (site) control. Since most counties help each other out (with or without mutual aid agreements) the desire to have interoperability was also a selling point. Using the monies from surplus equipment, ACU’s with small bases at the tower sites would provide interconnection on demand for the neighboring counties. Sharing resources makes good sense today more than ever.

  2. Andy, congrats on the IWCE nomination, you’ve got my vote!
    Some additional thoughts regarding your dissertation on LTE, LMR, modulation types and the efficacy of trunked systems for public safety agencies. First, the major differences between LTE and LMR is channelization and control. LMR currently resides (for the most part) on 12.5KHz channels. LTE occupies MHz wide RF landscape (1+ thru 20 below 3 GHz with greater available above). LMR analog needs the full 12.5 KHz channel to provide acceptable audio, albeit with a coverage handicap compared to P25 or other digital modulation schemes. The LMR digital schemes require codec based voice conversion to optimize voice audio. VOLTE modulation (PCM varient) is irrelevant to the transport other than bandwidth requirements for fidelity. That is the frosting baked into the cake at this time.
    Making modulation choices in VHF and UHF is primarily a coverage and economic decision. With modulation agility in the radio software and noise cancelling efficiency, the audio quality difference in high noise environments between analog and digital is becoming less and digital has become accepted in public safety service.
    The use of regional or statewide based trunked systems leverage the channelization and lessen the coverage restraints of conventional systems. The P25 core based trunking control requirements are similar to LTE. Furthermore, the ability to dynamically change and re-allocate predefined resource groups leverage the ability to balance workload and increase efficiency in consolidated PSAPs.
    Granted, trunking comes at a significant cost and administrative burden, but as an overall ROI it is a far less significant burden compared to dispatch personnel costs. Also, placing serviced infrastructure costs as a monthly or yearly agency expense, even if they are higher than periodic conventional replacements is a method preferred by most agencies who depend on local commercial resource for infrastructure support. Isn’t that the theme of FirstNet?
    Yes, there are arguments favoring conventional for simplicity, survive-ability, local control and minimum cost. Each day teaches us that the functional benefits of the more sophisticated alternatives diminish the differences mentioned above.
    Finally, I forgive you for your ‘dig’ at consultants. There are many in the field who cut-and-paste far too much to maintain a bottom line. The profession itself bears scrutiny which I have attempted to address through industry seminars. Perhaps a professional support organization coordinated by leaders such as yourself is in order? Only a few additional hours . . .
    Thanks for your continued insight, I appreciate the effort it takes!

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