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Back to Archives | Back to June 2011 Contents 

Bridging the Interoperability Gap through Integrated Partnerships

By Chris D. McBryan, Sergeant, Integrated Border Enforcement Team, Royal Canadian Mounted Police

Photographs courtesy of the Integrated Border Enforcement Team

olicing more than 5,200 miles of border has its challenges. The greatest challenge—beyond the remoteness, the lack of infrastructure, and the sheer size of the task—is that line of demarcation drawn on the map. For law enforcement in both Canada and the United States, that line has long been a barricade to effective cooperation. It establishes two distinct countries, two governments, two sets of laws, and myriad bureaucratic and legal encumbrances that hinder each country’s ability to effectively enforce its respective customs and border enforcement mandates.

In fact, the border is often an enabler of criminal enterprise. Its existence affects the supply and demand paradigm. Smugglers can charge high prices for moving goods, and those prices increase if the illegal commodity moves a few feet across the border. However, law enforcement is prevented from crossing the border to disrupt the smuggling.

How, then, do border enforcement agencies extend their reach in such a way as to conceptually erase or smudge that sociopolitical line on a map? Integrated partnerships, such as the Integrated Border Enforcement Team (IBET) and the numerous interoperability projects that it undertakes, are essential in providing an effective mechanism for enforcing both countries’ laws as they pertain to illegal border crossings and smuggling. In fact, integrated policing is impossible without interoperability.

IBETs History

The first border concept was introduced along the International Boundary between Washington state and British Columbia, Canada, in 1996. In 2001, the concept was recognized when it was included on the Smart Border Declaration. The first IBETs were deployed in 2002. IBETs are intelligence-led law enforcement teams that are designed to enhance border integrity. This goal is accomplished by bringing together core Canadian and U.S. federal partners to identify, investigate, and interdict persons and organizations that threaten the national security of the respective countries or who are involved in organized criminal activity between the ports of entry. IBETs are now operating in 24 strategic locations along the border. The core partner agencies of IBETs are the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP); the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA); the United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP); the United States Coast Guard (USCG); and the Homeland Security Investigations (the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement). IBET objectives are achieved through domestic and international partnerships; the collection, analysis, and dissemination of intelligence; prevention and awareness initiatives; and the application of special police investigative techniques and advanced technologies. To this end, IBETs are at the forefront of technological advancements aimed at enhancing the ability to conduct cross-border operations. This includes radio interoperability, geospatial intelligence, and sensor systems.

SAFECOM is a communications program of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Interoperability and Compatibility. The SAFECOM Interoperability Continuum not only provides a framework for defining interoperability but also is an excellent tool for establishing levels of integration (see figure 1). Interoperability and integration are very much aligned and interconnected.

Figure 1
Source: The Department of Homeland Security

Although the SAFECOM model focuses on technology, with a few operational interpretations it nicely defines operational integration as well and allows for operational requirements and capability gaps to drive functional technological developments and interoperability.

IBET has a solid governance model that establishes roles and responsibilities for participants and allows for the contribution of local agencies to enhance border security. This is consistent with the SAFECOM continuum. The IBET model is fully supported by a charter that provides a common vision and mission for partners who are governed by joint management teams, both at the operational and administrative levels. This approach permits the joint delivery of the IBET program and joint prioritization of operational priorities in the regions. On the interoperability continuum, IBET would achieve the highest level with regional committees or joint management teams working binationally to prioritize and plan operations and administrative requirements.

Technological Goals

Where IBET strives to enhance technology is in the development of common operating pictures, which more succinctly characterize the environment for decision makers and users alike. Recent examples include the marine operations common operating pictures deployed by IBET in Lake Ontario during the Toronto 2010 G20 and the vessel tracking system used on the U.S. and Canadian West Coasts. The Lake Ontario system utilized a variety of integrated sensors to monitor all traffic on Lake Ontario between the United States and Toronto, Canada—the site of the G20. By sharing the integrated sensor information, the RCMP, the Toronto Police, and other participating agencies were able to develop common operating pictures.

“For the first time, all agencies concerned with the marine environment had a common language that we could speak,” said Sergeant Eric Goodwin, Toronto Police Service Marine Unit. This gave senior managers a complete view of the situation on the lake during the security event and assisted them in planning and coordinating resources and responses. The RCMP is now hoping to extend this common language to its U.S. partners and has started to explore the complete integration of both the U.S. and the Canadian marine sensors into one common operating picture. The Great Lakes Marine Security Operations Center (GL MSOC) will be the regional focal point for the collection, the analysis, and the sharing of information on marine and transborder traffic. As such, the GL MSOC would allow key multidisciplinary staff to collaborate on a regular basis and integrate operations for a more effective maritime border response.

In the area of standard operating procedures (SOPs), there are different levels of integration in IBET. Interestingly, while technology is often a driver in the creation of SOPs, in the case of IBETs, it is more often the need to communicate and share intelligence that is the driver of SOPs. One of the most valuable SOP tools developed by IBET is the information sharing matrix. This tool was developed by investigators and a team of legal experts from both countries and from all five core agencies. The matrix identifies common examples of circumstances and conditions under which one agency will be asked to share information or intelligence with another agency. The matrix identifies the procedures and rules of sharing, including the applicable legal authorities and the methods for request. This tool has proven invaluable, permitting law enforcement officers to share information for investigative purposes with confidence.

IBETs continue to develop further SOPs and run integrated training and exercises with a focus on integrated operations. The Canada-U.S. Shiprider is an initiative operating in the marine environment that allows specially trained and designated personnel from the RCMP and U.S. Coast Guard to ride fully armed on each other’s vessels and to cross the border in the furtherance of enforcing both countries antismuggling laws. On October 26, 2010, legislation to formalize the Canada-U.S. Shiprider initiative was introduced in the Senate. Once ratified, this legislation would provide Canadian and U.S. authorities with an enhanced enforcement tool that could be employed more regularly throughout Canada.

Radio Communications

The main issue of concern with interoperability and integration is radio communications. At the first binational meeting of investigators and senior managers for IBET in 2002, it was identified by field investigators that the number one issue in the field was radio interoperability. This capability gap impacts all of the levels of the interoperability and integrated policing continuum. At a basic level, how can officers communicate and cooperate without the ability to use their radios? Strategically, how can they work together daily and be effective in their responses and resource allocation if they cannot effectively coordinate those responses and resources. Employing Sergeant Goodwin’s example, officers can “speak the same language” with a common operating picture, but they cannot speak to one another.

Since land mobile radio systems are the backbone of any policing organization, it is essential in achieving interoperability that agents and officers have portable radios with which all partners can communicate. These radios are the links to communications centers and, most importantly, to law enforcement backup. Consider a typical scenario in which a border patrol agent responds to a sensor alarm and observes signs that indicate that a group of individuals has transited the border northbound into Canada. How does this agent contact Canadian law enforcement partners to advise them of this incident? Figuratively, how does the agent extend knowledge and mandate north to ensure the suspects are apprehended? While the agent could initiate a series of communications steps, such as emails and phone calls between countries, it would clearly be more efficient and effective to communicate directly with the RCMP to advise of the situation.

Regionally, the RCMP and the CBP have undertaken a variety of measures to solve this problem, most often simply swapping radios during operations. As usual, police officers will do what they have to do to get the job done. But in this and in any task force environment where there are multiple agencies involved in an operation, how many different radios does an agent carry?

Is the solution one, long radio system to cover both countries? The primary issue with this type of solution is money. The solution could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. In this and in any fiscal environment, such a cost is not palatable or cost effective to the federal governments. Additionally, there is the issue of existing radio systems. In Canada, the RCMP has a piecemeal system of 16 different radio systems with different manufacturers and more than 1,300 radio towers, making wholesale removal of these systems untenable. In the United States, the CBP uses one radio manufacturer but has different systems deployed along the U.S. border.

Added to the issue of border communications is the troublesome matter of spectrum coordination. The Canada-U.S. border is governed by three radio frequency spectrum management agencies: Industry Canada, the Federal Communications Commission, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. These agencies coordinate spectrum in the United States and in Canada. They assign frequencies to emergency services as well as to the many commercial users, such as taxicab companies. While theoretically possible, coordinating these frequencies so that U.S. and Canadian law enforcement agencies could use the same frequency is impractical in actuality. Since it is a violation of the governing acts to use a radio system broadcasting on an unauthorized frequency in either country, the task of communication is made extremely difficult. Finally, the use of different technologies, from UHF or VHF to P25,1 adds further barriers to communication between the two countries. Through an analysis of the difficulties with radio traffic across the border, it became clear that radio spectrum and new radio systems were not the answer.

Internet protocols and the flexibility offered by this technology is a proven solution to address the barriers to international interoperability. Voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), the forerunner to radio over Internet protocol (RoIP), has been in existence since the original version of the Internet in 1973. Since that time, there have been numerous technological enhancements that have helped VoIP develop from a rarity to an immensely popular method of communication. The voice call software application Skype, for example, has more than 400 million users. The addition of robust broadband networks has allowed this technology to become reliable and cost effective.

ROIP uses similar technology. The application server converts fully encrypted audio from its base format to an H.323 Internet protocol—the ideal protocol for transmitting calls—and then sends that to another agency on one of any number of mediums. One could use anything from a twisted-pair, high-signal integrity cable, in the case of a joint building, to dedicated T1 fiber-optic line or a multiprotocol label switching circuit. The power of this technology is that the application server will convert any four-pin radio format, UHF, VHF and P25, to Internet protocol packets, and those packets can be sent fully encrypted to any designated partner, unencrypted, and broadcast over the partner’s radio system, irrespective of encryption or format. In a national security environment, this means that international agencies are not sharing encryption and are not required to manage each other’s encryption keys.

Connections North to South, East to West

In 2007, a commitment at the North American Leaders’ Summit in Montebello, Québec, between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Stephen Harper was made to explore radio interoperability and was followed up with Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America funding to conduct pilot projects. In June 2008, a pilot commenced in the Rocky Mountain IBET to connect RCMP officers and the U.S. Border Patrol in the border patrol’s Havre Sector using RoIP through the RCMP Red Deer County, Alberta, Dispatch. A systems acceptance test was conducted, and the system achieved its objectives. An RCMP IBET user in Canada, using his own encrypted radio, was able to be connected to and speak with a border patrol agent in Montana, who was using his encrypted portable radio. As a bonus deliverable, an IBET member in Ottawa was able to monitor and speak to those same Canadian and U.S. IBET officers from a phone in his office.

The RCMP and the CBP team that built this system has since learned numerous lessons on the performance of RoIP and ways to make the system more robust, secure, and reliable. Combining the lessons learned from the project and the capabilities of RoIP, Canada and the United States can create a standards-based system of systems. This enterprise-grade gateway solution for cross-border communications capabilities would establish a secure tunnel over multiprotocol label switching circuits between the United States and Canada. This is a system-of-systems approach to the problem. Rather than a complete overhaul, this is an overarching interoperability system, which allows existing disparate systems to communicate with each other.

The radio interoperability system created would establish a secure north-south connection between Ottawa, Canada, and a northern border hub of the United States. From these two hubs, the ROIP management server would control and coordinate the communications of the various sectors and divisions. This approach would establish binational radio interoperability for border enforcement agencies along the entire U.S.-Canadian border. In addition, on the Canadian side, east-west operability would exist between IBET teams.

The RoIP solution is a cost-effective methodology for solving the binational interoperability problem. A recent cost analysis of installing new radio gear on existing towers to facilitate a traditional radio solution along the Canadian border resulted in an estimate of several hundred million dollars. Of course, this is without consideration for the spectrum management and purchase costs that would be added to the solution. It would take approximately 10 years to deploy this method and coordinate the spectrum required. In contrast, the equipment, leased lines, and personnel required for the RoIP solution would cost Canada several million dollars for the entire country and could be deployed in two years. ROIP is a fraction of the cost of the temporary solution and would provide all the capabilities without the headache of spectrum and encryption key management.

Solution Deployment

The RCMP Border Integrity Program and the Mobile Communications Unit have started construction on the Canadian side of this enterprise-grade system-of-systems solution. The solution, when fully deployed, would allow IBET and RCMP users to speak to each other from the coast to coast. It would also provide the framework for interoperability between the RCMP and other border area emergency services. Once the link is made to the United States, it would also allow the RCMP, the CBSA, the CBP, and the USCG to communicate on their existing radio systems. In addition, further binational coordination can be developed, since this same network would be made available to other public service agencies along the border to facilitate communication between themselves and their U.S.-Canadian counterparts.

In support of IBET pilot projects and in anticipation of the national deployment of the solution, the IBET has used its own governance systems, such as its joint management teams, and has written a radio interoperability governance model and a set of SOPs. These are living documents, which will no doubt change as agencies come on board the IBET radio network. However, they will serve all well in achieving a high level of interoperability on the SAFECOM continuum. Once fully deployed, the IBET radio system of systems would see both national and regional committees working on a binational radio interoperability plan along with state and provincial agencies. Regional communications SOPs would be established for this shared system of systems, which would see daily use throughout the two nations.

Integration and effective partnerships require communications interoperability. Effective communication establishes standards that guide and enable all levels of policing. Without this capability, the IBET partners would continue to operate in silos, independent of one another. The IBET program is striving to enhance its partnerships through integrated policing initiatives such as Shiprider, and radio interoperability is essential to the success of these initiatives. The communications challenges inherent within the border environment can now finally be put to rest. With clear standards and procedures for sharing information and a methodology for both tactically and operationally communicating, the IBET program is taking the shared responsibility of securing the common border to the next level of efficiency and effectiveness. ■


1For more information, please see Stuard Overby and Cynthia Wenzel Cole, “Understanding: IP Voice Connectivity Alternatives,” The Police Chief 75 (October 2008): 52–29, (accessed April 13, 2011).

Please cite as:

Chris D. McBryan, "Bridging the Interoperability Gap through Integrated Partnerships," The Police Chief 78 (June 2011): 66–69.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 6, June 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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