Agencies Evaluate Multiband Radios
January 27, 2010
Photo courtesy Connie Tyler, Phoenix Police Department
Remember the days — maybe it’s today — when you carried a cell phone, pager, two-way radio and who knows what else to communicate? “Today, I have three devices: VHF radio, 700/800 MHz radio and a cell phone,” said Boise (Idaho) Fire Department Capt. Paul Roberts. “Tomorrow I’ll have my cell phone and a multiband radio. And maybe the day after, I’ll just have a single device that provides all sorts of interoperability.”
Last fall, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) chose 14 public-safety agencies from across the country to participate in 30-day pilot projects that are the final phase of a three-part testing and evaluating process that also included laboratory and short-term demonstrations of multiband radios. “For years, public-safety agencies have been relegated to various frequency bands depending on discipline and location,” said Jesse Cooper, communications and IT project manager for the Phoenix Police Department. “Public-safety communications has struggled to accomplish what amateur radio has had for years — the ability for a single radio to communicate across bands.”
The first DHS pilot began in November in Hawaii, and other pilots will launch through the spring and should conclude by this summer, said Tom Chirhart, who manages the multiband radio project for DHS. “We chose a wide array of types of entities to pilot the radio in order to get a full glimpse of its interoperability capabilities,” Chirhart said. During the pilots, technicians and users participate in an introductory training session with DHS and manufacturer representatives. Users test the radio in live situations using a test plan developed by pilot participants. After the pilots are completed, users will be able to provide feedback on the capabilities and effectiveness of the technology.
DHS has taken a major step toward encouraging the development of a multiband radio for public-safety users, Cooper said. “The public-safety community now has national support for the development, testing and deployment of a long-awaited tool for public safety,” Cooper said. “The pilot will also have the positive effect of encouraging vendors to take a look at what the public-safety users are saying about performance, feel and use of multiband radios to ultimately develop better products for the future.”
“To think that all public safety/first responders — local, state, regional and federal — will someday be on a single spectrum is unrealistic,” Roberts said. “It’s more likely, I think predictable, that in the future all public safety at any level of government will have multiband radios, and spectrum will not be as significant.” The multiband radios work on five frequency bands used by state and local first responders and can work on four other bands used exclusively by the Department of Defense (DoD), National Guard and Coast Guard. To communicate with another agency, users simply program and select the assigned channel in use.
The Boise Fire Department became involved in the pilot because the region is implementing a 700 MHz Project 25 (P25) trunked system, Roberts said. “As a fire department in the West, we have a strong relationship with our federal firefighting resources who use VHF. As the transition to 700 MHz takes place, we know we cannot completely abandon a VHF capability,” Roberts said. “The multiband radio allows us to have both worlds in a single radio. With the multiband radio, it’s as simple as changing channels.” So far the Boise Fire Department has been able to identify changes needed that improve multiband radio, show DHS that there is a need for multiband radio and determine where that radio best works with our department, Roberts said.
During Super Bowl XLII held in 2008 in Glendale, Ariz., the greater Phoenix region encountered a significant need for command-and-control personnel to communicate across disparate frequency bands, Cooper said. “We had a total of 66 different entities that needed to communicate during the two-week operational period,” Cooper said. “While we were successful at using shared channels, gateways and cache radios, we realized that during certain events, a single radio with capabilities to communicate on various frequency bands would be beneficial. DHS contacted me as the communications coordinator for the Super Bowl and asked if we would be interested in piloting the Thales multiband radio.” In 2008, Thales was awarded a $6.3 million contract with DHS to pilot test a multiband radio. The Liberty radios cover the VHF low and high bands, UHF, and 700 and 800 MHz.
The Arizona plan involves deploying radios throughout the metropolitan area, as well as testing in rural environments to capture how the radios can be used in disparate environments. “Our fire services use VHF extensively, while state police and medical still rely on UHF, and urban areas are transitioning to 700/800 MHz digital trunked systems. So we have a wide range of users we intend to engage because they routinely need to communicate across bands,” Cooper said. “We also have a large number of federal agencies and military users in our state that we hope to engage given their interaction with civilian agencies on a day-to-day basis.”
Cooper said the Phoenix Police Department and the state of Arizona hope to put the multiband radios through a series of rigorous public-safety scenarios to evaluate their ability to perform in mission-critical situations. “We want to ensure that these new products that are hitting the streets are as rugged as their single-band counterparts and perform as advertised,” he said.
Final pricing for multiband radios could make cost either a significant advantage or disadvantage for the public-safety community. “By having the capability to reduce the need for multiple radio purchases, this could result in a significant cost savings provided the multiband radios on the market allow us to realize a cost savings,” Cooper said. “However, if multiband radios end up being too expensive, the ability to procure them for widespread deployment could be jeopardized and minimize the effectiveness of having them available.” Chirhart said the radios currently cost $5,000 – $6,000, but he hopes that competition among vendors will eventually lower the cost of the radios.
Some early issues Cooper has seen include disadvantages in size, weight, antenna length and speed of performance. The radio is about 10 inches tall and weighs less than 2 pounds. “While the ability to communicate across bands is important, the ability for our users to be comfortable and experience similar performance to single-band radios is just as critical,” Cooper said.
Another issue that must be addressed is regional coordination. “Having a radio with such robust capabilities increases the need for technical personnel to have the appropriate agreements in place to allow programming of frequencies and talk groups in radios,” Cooper said. “Additionally, the capability the multiband radio provides necessitates greater operational coordination, training and exercises for first responders to become proficient with the radio and learn its capabilities to effectively use them during critical incidents.”
Roberts said that because the radios can be so complex, offering so many channels, it may be easy for a user to get lost. “These new-generation devices are going to require training the users more than we’ve done in the past,” Roberts said. “Technology is coming at us, like it or not, so fast that we need to be involved, understand it and ensure that the technology works for us and not against us.”
Multiband radio provides one less interoperability hurdle for public safety to overcome, according to Brent Williams, EMS and trauma systems section with the Michigan Department of Community Health. William’s agency expects to have pilot radios by the end of January or the beginning of February. “However, it’s also important to note that with the radios, you still can’t talk to everyone at once,” Williams said. “But at least it’s a start.”
The 14 organizations participating in the DHS pilot include:
- Olympic Security Committee (Blaine, Wash., and Vancouver, British Columbia)
- Amtrak (Northeast corridor)
- Boise (Idaho) Fire Department
- Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group (Ottawa)
- Customs and Border Patrol (Detroit)
- Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
- Hawaii State Civil Defense (Honolulu)
- Interagency Communication Interoperability System (Los Angeles County)
- Michigan Emergency Medical Services (lower peninsula areas)
- Murray State University (southwest Kentucky)
- Phoenix Police Department and Arizona Department of Emergency Management (greater Phoenix and Yuma County)
- Texas National Guard (Austin, Texas)
- U.S. Marshals Service (Northeast region)
- Washington Metro Area Transit Authority Transit Police