By Robert P. Griffin Jr., PhD, Director of Support to the Homeland Security Enterprise and First Responders, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate, Washington, D.C.
hen police officers pursue suspects across jurisdictional lines, relaying information to partner agencies through a dispatcher wastes precious minutes. Likewise, when firefighters respond to an apartment building blaze, there is not always time to pay attention to whether or not their radios can withstand the extreme heat. With these and other similar scenarios, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) has partnered with multiple cities and vendors across the nation to fine-tune a technology that enables police officers, firefighters, and other emergency response and management personnel to use a single mobile radio to communicate with multiple agencies and jurisdictions, even though these groups operate on different radio bands. Led by the DHS S&T’s Office for Interoperability and Compatibility (OIC)—part of the directorate’s Support to the Homeland Security Enterprise and First Responders Group—the multiband radio (MBR) project provides this much-needed solution. MBR technology allows a single radio to communicate on up to five different radio bands at a cost that is comparable to other high-end, single-band, portable radios. Additionally, in its evaluation pilots, the OIC discovered several common themes, including the issues of battery power and the need for improved durability so that the radios can withstand the extreme environments in which they work. Thus far, the OIC has collaborated with Thales Communications and the Harris Corporation to establish and improve the MBR technology in these and other key ways.
Meeting Critical Communications Needs
Effective radio communications play a vital role in achieving a successfully coordinated emergency response; to that end, it is critical that responders have access to a single radio that provides effective communications with all partner agencies, regardless of radio band. For example, local and state emergency response agencies communicate on different frequency bands (that is, groupings of radio frequencies that are used by mobile networks to communicate with mobile technologies), as do federal agencies. Local and state emergency response agencies are licensed to communicate on 150–174 megahertz (MHz), 450–470 MHz, 700 MHz, and 800 MHz, whereas federal agencies communicate on 162–174 MHz or 406–420 MHz. On the other hand, the Department of Defense communicates on 138–144 MHz and 380–400 MHz frequency bands, which are different bands than those used by other federal government agencies. As a result, these agencies are often unable to seamlessly communicate with each other unless they can immediately access multiple radios that are capable of operating on all of the various bands. MBR technology effectively addresses this challenge by allowing communications across these disparate bands, thereby providing the unprecedented capability to replace multiple different radios.
Early-generation radio equipment operated on one band only; thus, emergency response agencies required additional equipment to communicate with partner agencies. Some agencies would have to swap or share their radios, while others used time-consuming methods to exchange information—like relaying messages through dispatchers or using audio switches that connect radios together. When the emergency response community sought support from the federal government, the OIC responded by partnering with responders to identify and share their specific communications requirements with manufacturers to ensure that equipment was built specifically to address this critical communications need.
Evaluation Pilots Lead to an Improved MBR
Since 2008, the OIC has partnered with responders and manufacturers to conduct evaluation pilots to ensure that radios meet end-user requirements while educating the emergency response community on the benefits of MBRs. The OIC also has worked closely with the response community to gather their mission-critical requirements so that manufacturers understand what type of radio to develop. Throughout its partnerships, the OIC has uncovered several key needs:
- Responders need radios that are durable enough to withstand a fire’s scorching heat and winter’s freezing temperatures.
- All users identified that they require a battery pack that can operate efficiently through an extended shift that often exceeds 12 hours.
- Police officers and firefighters working a crowded event or on the scene of a fire require radios that provide sufficient audio clarity, as well as noise-canceling software, that will eliminate background noise.
These examples represent just a few of the requirements that responders need for their day-to-day operations, and the OIC continues to work closely with vendors to ensure that future MBR technology is equipped with these capabilities.
In 2010, the OIC, in collaboration with Thales Communications, initiated MBR technology demonstrations with a select group of agencies across the United States, including heavily attended events such as the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Through these demonstrations, the OIC put MBR technology directly into the hands of the users to determine how the radios could be further refined and which features responders wanted and needed.
Through this project, the OIC has helped to increase the number of manufacturers developing MBR technology. In September 2010, the OIC partnered with the Harris Corporation and arranged another set of demonstrations—also involving participation from the emergency response community—to conduct the evaluation of the Harris Unity MBR. Providing emergency response agencies with numerous MBR options will result in an improved selection of technology and perpetuate increased competition among vendors, ultimately driving down prices over time.
Responders Benefit from MBR at NASCAR
In February 2011, the OIC and the Harris Corporation began an extensive six-week evaluation phase with the Unity MBR. The first portion of this phase included a weeklong test of this MBR technology during the annual NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at the Phoenix International Raceway in Phoenix, Arizona—an event that provided an opportunity to evaluate the MBR’s capabilities at a time when race day crowds nearly doubled the population of the region. The magnitude of the event required a multifaceted communications plan and a high level of interagency cooperation and communications interoperability. Participating agencies included local, regional, state, tribal, and federal agencies. The Arizona Department of Emergency Management and the Phoenix Police Department led and coordinated the logistics support throughout the evaluation phase of the pilot.
Following the completion of the NASCAR pilot, the Unity MBRs were distributed to law enforcement agencies across the state to further test the technology in their day-to-day operations. Given the success of the NASCAR event, more than 20 agencies participated in the pilot. The next round of tests evaluated the MBR technology’s performance in a variety of conditions, including the deserts near the border and cold, wet, mountainous environments. Users from the Customs and Border Protection and the K-9 units were able to test the MBR technology during their daily routines.
Multiple Agencies Test MBR Technology in New Orleans
In April 2011, OIC initiated another six-week evaluation phase for its MBR project in New Orleans, Louisiana. The pilot began with a 10-day test during the annual New Orleans, Louisiana, Jazz and Heritage Festival. A host of important organizations participated in the evaluation, including the Louisiana National Guard; the U.S. Coast Guard; the New Orleans police and fire departments; the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office; the American Red Cross; and other local, state, and federal agencies. Upon completion of the festival, the Mississippi River threatened to flood lower parishes in southern Louisiana, and, as a result, the pilot expanded. Additional participating agencies throughout the state included the Acadian Ambulance Services, the New Orleans Department of Health, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the New Orleans Office of Emergency Preparedness, New Orleans Emergency Medical Services, New Orleans Public Works, the Saint Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office, and other emergency response agencies from surrounding parishes.
The New Orleans pilot also addressed the issue of the MBR’s battery power. Since most emergency responders conduct regular and perimeter patrols on foot, not every officer can be close to a charging station. When a radio runs out of power, responders must be able to replace the battery until it can be charged at a mobile command center. In addition, the need for radio equipment that can operate using disposable batteries was noted throughout the pilot and has become apparent as a lesson learned from various other emergencies.
Sound standard operating procedures and user training must be in place for multiple agencies on the scene of an incident to easily communicate on MBRs. Agencies must also already have agreements arranged that allow responders to share radio channels. Additionally, radios must be programmed so that they can perform the capabilities needed by responders throughout their daily operations (for example, channel configuration or naming nomenclature of channels must be similar). Tom Chirhart, the MBR project manager for the DHS S&T, commented, “First responders who participated in the New Orleans pilot found that it was easy to learn how to use the MBR, and they liked how they could intermix with different bands in a single zone within a radio.”1
Participants in the New Orleans pilot also identified several physical features of the MBR that engineers need to address, which includes the length and flexibility of MBR antennas. The OIC anticipates that as MBR technology matures, engineers will continue to make this and other needed design improvements.
Florida’s Heavy Tourist Season Improves MBR
The OIC piloted the MBR technology in multiple counties across Florida in June 2011 for a 10-week evaluation. The pilot supported the counties’ emergency response agencies during Fourth of July celebrations, as well as the region’s heavy tourist and hurricane season. The holiday’s musical events and fireworks created a high-noise environment to test the MBR technology, providing a unique opportunity to evaluate the audio quality of the radio. The pilot engaged all emergency response disciplines, including law enforcement, fire, rescue, emergency medical services, transportation, and medical care facilities. The Southeast Regional Domestic Security Task Force and more than 40 partner agencies participated in the pilot, including federal participants with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; U.S. Customs and Border Protection; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; the U.S. Marshals Service; and the U.S. Coast Guard. At the request of agencies throughout South Florida, DHS S&T extended the pilot through the month of August 2011.
The Road Ahead
The information gathered from all of these pilots will ultimately help to develop a procurement guide that will assist emergency response agencies in identifying equipment functionality that can meet their requirements. As more complex technologies and radios are developed, the OIC hopes that its work will enable responders to purchase cost-effective radio equipment that best supports its goal to save lives and protect property.
The DHS S&T continues to work closely with Thales Communications and the Harris Corporation by sponsoring pilots that further test and refine the MBR technology with the goal of strengthening interoperable communications for emergency responders. This work aligns with the DHS S&T’s overarching goal to strengthen U.S. security and resiliency by providing knowledge products and innovative technology solutions for the homeland security enterprise.
To date, the pilots have identified that a multiband radio offers a unique capability to communicate across the disparate radio bands in use by first responders and other organizations that support their mission. The ability to mix radio channels that are programmed to operate on different radio bands without changing radios and the ability to communicate on a public safety channel—and then, with the change of a channel, communicate with an emergency responder such as a member of the Coast Guard operating on a marine radio channel or with a federal official on yet another—offers a capability that was not available until very recently. Software enhancements have extended the battery life expectancy through battery conservation techniques.
Users expressed a need for a suite of accessories developed to meet their unique mission requirements with noise-cancelling microphones, special headsets, and add-on devices or capabilities. Some agencies adopted or modified products and tested them during the pilots to see how they performed. The introduction of additional or enhanced devices will spur a new secondary market. ■
1Tom Chirhart, DHS Science and Technology internal program update briefing, May 24, 2011.
Please cite as:
Robert P. Griffin Jr., "Multiband Radio Enables Dynamic Communications Interoperability," The Police Chief 78 October 2011): 112116.