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Back to Archives | Back to April 2004 Contents 

Special Focus: The National Public Safety Telecommunications Council

By John S. Powell, Sergeant (Retired), University of California Police Department, Berkeley, California, and Marilyn B. Ward, Manager, Orange County Public Safety Communications Division, and Chair, National Public Safety Telecommunications Council

Telecommunications provides the vital link between the public and the first responder and between first responders and other responders. It is one of the most critical resources in today's public safety mission. To ensure advocacy for public safety telecommunications in the United States, the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) was formed in May 1997. NPSTC is a federation of 13 member organizations, each of which uses or supports public safety communications. NPSTC also includes five federal liaison organizations.

The mission of the NPSTC is to encourage and facilitate through a collective voice the implementation of Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee and the 700-megahertz Public Safety National Coordination Committee recommendations.

A Stormy History
NPSTC Website
The importance of NPSTC's emergence as the public safety community's voice and vision for the future becomes clearer after a quick review of the stormy history of public safety communications in the last decade and a half.

The recent history begins with the Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee (PSWAC), a federal advisory committee organized pursuant to the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) and jointly sponsored by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).1 The PSWAC was chartered in 1994 as a result of significant pressure put on Congress by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Association of Public-Safety
NPSTC Website
Communications Officials International, and the International Association of Fire Chiefs in response to critical spectrum shortages. The primary role of PSWAC was to identify the broad communications spectrum needs of public safety for local, state, and federal users through the year 2010. Hundreds of the best and brightest leaders and technologists from all corners of the public safety world participated. As a result, most of the PSWAC findings and recommendations are considered valid today and continue to serve as a valuable resource for future planning. The PSWAC Final Report, released in 1996, recommended an additional 97 megahertz of spectrum by 2010, including a critical need for 24 megahertz of spectrum within the first five years, of which at least three megahertz should be for interoperability. Ironically, on the fifth anniversary of that report not a single new channel of public safety spectrum was available nationwide for licensing. That anniversary date was September 11, 2001.

In a similar fashion, the National Coordination Committee (NCC) was a FACA-chartered committee sponsored by the FCC. Its role was to provide the FCC with interoperability, technology, and implementation recommendations for the 24 megahertz of spectrum in the 700-megahertz band reallocated by the FCC from broadcast television to public safety as part of a 1996 congressional directive. The FCC realized the importance of directly involving local and state public safety leaders in developing these important decisions. IACP members participated in public forums and on several NCC subcommittees. The NCC Steering Committee included representatives from such major public safety associations as IACP, from the federal government, and from industry. The NCC charter expired on July 25, 2003.

Although many recommendations had been made, with a number of associated regulations adopted by the FCC at the time of the NCC sunset, a significant number of items were and remain outstanding. With encouragement from the FCC, NPSTC agreed to assume the role of NCC follow-on, though not as a federally chartered committee. Currently, NPSTC is in the process of reorganizing its internal committees to better represent the interest areas that existed in both the PSWAC and NCC to better support this mission.

Beyond the many recommendations and reports developed by these two federal committees, perhaps their most important benefit to the public safety community was to provide a public stage for discussion of relevant public safety wireless telecommunications issues. Agency representatives, manufacturers, and the general public were all welcome to attend the open meetings and present their views on topics of interest. Meetings were held at different locations around the United States to promote this inclusiveness.

The National Public Safety Telecommunications Council emerged from these federal efforts. The NPSTC is managed by a governing board of representatives selected by the 13 public safety member organizations. It has four regional representatives from around the United States from the 700- and 800-megahertz regional planning committees and is supported by a national support office (NSO) located at the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center for the Rocky Mountain region in Denver.

As a result of a recent reorganization, NPSTC is revising the format of its quarterly meetings to better provide this standing public forum for the exchange of ideas and information regarding public safety wireless telecommunications. In addition to this recent change, the roles of NPSTC, through funding by the National Institute of Justice's Agile Program, is being expanded in exploring the emerging public safety telecommunications issues and technologies, and developing recommendations to appropriate governmental bodies to support the broad goals of promoting public safety telecommunications worldwide. Also NPSTC has subcommittees for technology and interoperability, as well as a number of long-term working groups supporting such issues as 4.9-gigahertz broadband and software defined radio.

NPSTC Member Organizations
American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO)
American Radio Relay League (ARRL)
American Red Cross (ARC)
Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International (APCO International)
Forestry Conservation Communications Association (FCCA)
International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP)
International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM)
International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC)
International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (IAFWA)
International Municipal Signal Association (IMSA)
National Association of State Emergency Medical Services Directors (NASEMSD)
National Association of State Foresters (NASF)
National Association of State Telecommunications Directors (NASTD)
NPSTC Liaison Organizations Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
Federal Law Enforcement Wireless Users Group (FLEWUG)
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
U.S. Dept of Homeland Security Safecom Program (Safecom)
U.S. Department of Interior

4.9-gigahertz Working Group

The NPSTC 4.9-gigahertz Working Group was formed to address issues surrounding the 2002 allocation of 50 megahertz of new spectrum to public safety in the 4.9-gigahertz band to support the broadband2 wireless needs of local and state public safety agencies, the largest single allocation of spectrum ever made to local and state public safety.

The primary purpose of the working group is to ensure that the public safety community is able to leverage the low cost off-the-shelf equipment available in the adjacent unlicensed band that is seeing increased use across much of the globe for wireless broadband hotspots (such as those at local coffee shops and in airports), as well as in businesses and private residences. Public safety agencies across the United States are already taking advantage of this technology in these same unlicensed bands, often with little added protection of critical and sensitive information and with no priority over any other user in this shared environment. NPSTC's task force is working diligently to identify and understand these current applications as well as potential future uses of this spectrum.

In support of interoperability and competitive procurement, the development of technical standards is currently under discussion with the Telecommunications Industry Association. At the same time, NPSTC is working with industry and standards organizations to ensure that products meet the added mobility and security requirements essential to properly support public safety applications.

Project Mesa

NPSTC has taken an active role in an international activity known as Mobility for Emergency and Safety Applications, or Mesa. The Mesa mission is to identify standards and technologies for the emerging use of broadband technologies by the worldwide public protection and disaster response communities. Project Mesa is jointly sponsored by two standards definition organizations (SDOs), the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, which represents the countries of the European Union, and the Telecommunications Industry Association, which represents the United States. There are different classes of members, including agency membership for public safety agencies from both continents. Mesa currently includes members from all regions of the world, and SDOs from other parts of the world are considering joining this effort as sponsors. Its activities are clearly being driven by European and North American public safety users, with the important realization that the processes and procedures, as well as the technologies chosen to support them, are not all that different from one continent to the next. To the degree that these commonalities can be leveraged in the global marketplace, public safety will benefit from more equipment sources and increased competitiveness.

NPSTC Is . . .
Volunteers and Leaders in Public Safety Communications

  • Working to ensure standards for new technologies

  • Providing input and leadership to regulatory bodies

  • Providing a forum for discussion and consensus

  • Developing positions and input to areas impacting public safety communications

  • Providing technical and operational expertise to decision makers regarding public safety communications

  • Responding to Federal Communications Commission rule makings

  • Providing technical and operational expertise from real first-responder perspective

  • Wireless and Interoperability Statement of Requirements

    Agile and Safecom3 have, as one of their immediate and high priorities, the development of a statement of requirements (SOR) to define as completely as possible the overall wireless needs of the public safety community. This scenario-based document is blue-sky in nature, considering not only current requirements but also many future applications that are viewed as potential solutions for public safety. A gap analysis conducted as part of the SOR will mold future activities of these and other agencies. NPSTC members have been active participants in the development of this document and NPSTC will serve as the organization through which the final SOR is vetted prior to anticipated public distribution about the time this article is published.

    Regional Planning

    NPSTC has taken a leading role with regard to regional planning for the new 700-megahertz public safety band. The National Support Office of the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC) has provided Agile funding for development of the computer-assisted precoordination and resource database (CAPRAD), a fully operational tool for regional planning. CAPRAD is capable of housing the details associated with the 700-megahertz planning process, from initial channel allocation through final FCC licensing for all frequencies in this new band. It also serves as a router for completed application approval to the four FCC-certified public safety frequency coordinators. In completing this database and performing a national frequency pre-allocation by dividing channels by county across the 50 states based upon population and other relevant characteristics, NPSTC was able to resolve one of the major complaints from earlier regional planning in the 800-megahertz band. CAPRAD is currently undergoing expansion to include similar features for state-by-state interoperability planning from each of the statewide interoperability executive committees (SIECs), as well as providing licensing and use coordination for the new 4.9-gigahertz band.

    Regulatory Activity

    NPSTC has prepared a number of filings to the FCC on behalf of the public safety community, often in concert with other organizations, including those representing appointed and elected local, county, and state government officials. Historically the first such filing by NPSTC was on Docket 96-86 concerning the initial rules for the 700-megahertz public safety band. This NPSTC filing was the largest and most detailed filing ever made to the FCC by the public safety community and laid the groundwork for many of the FCC's later decisions on the 700-megahertz band. Recently, NPSTC has provided input to the FCC on dockets relating to the narrowbanding of spectrum below 512 megahertz where most law enforcement agencies maintain their primary communications. NPSTC also has provided rules and technology recommendations for the 50 megahertz of new broadband spectrum recently allocated for local and state public safety use in the 4.9-gigahertz band.

    NPSTC participation is open to any member of any public safety organization who wishes to participate in its activities. Although many of its activities are operational and technical in nature, some address critical administrative and management issues. Participation does not require attendance at its quarterly meetings, though such attendance is encouraged. Much of NPSTC's work is handled by conference calls and e-mail. View publications, a summary of current activities, and a schedule of meetings at .

    The Future: Software Defined Radio

    Software defined radio (SDR) is important to law enforcement's communication future. Now local and state public safety first responder agencies are spread across 10 discrete land mobile radio frequency bands from 30 megahertz to 869 megahertz and employing a number of different air-interface protocols, bringing about the lack of interoperability. The lack of interoperability is the most significant problem cited in after-action reports from major public safety related incidents. SDR promises perhaps the best long-term interoperability solution, providing the field officer with a personal communication unit designed to allow the officer to communicate in real-time with anyone inside the limits established by agency managers. However, the technology still faces significant technical challenges as it grows from its infancy at the U.S. Department of Defense and commercial development enterprises.

    Operational requirements highlighted by the horrific events of September 11 are driving agencies to demand dramatically improved interoperability between users. The solutions being implemented today, primarily cross-band links, are not spectrum efficient, nor do they provide needed coverage in many situations. Patch systems require one radio frequency path in each band for each conversation path to be linked, channels that must be taken from the available inventory of one of the participating agencies in each band. Coverage is limited to that area that is covered by the overlapping radio frequency footprint of all of the involved channels. Couple these limitations with the operational requirements to set up and monitor each of the patch links, along with the limitations of the patch technology itself (delays in channel keying, inability to detect busy talk groups on trunking systems, and the lack of support for end-to-end encryption) and the usability of these systems can quickly reduce their benefit to interoperability.

    The real need for a public safety officer is to carry a communication unit that offers the ability to communicate with others in real time. That need must be supported radio-to-radio without the use of existing infrastructure for on-scene use at many incidents.

    The future is software defined radio, offering the potential of providing a multiband platform that supports a number of different public safety waveforms. A waveform is the software package that defines the air interface and protocols necessary to enable communications using a particular technology. Project 25 Phase I, M/A-COM EDACS, and Motorola SmartNet are examples of public safety waveforms that could be supported on an SDR platform. Equipping a field officer with a radio that supported the waveforms of agencies in that geographic area, along with a common national interoperability waveform, would provide that officer with direct interoperability without the need for enabling infrastructure. Additionally, SDR offers important other benefits to public safety. The ability to download software onto an existing platform allows for the addition of new features to existing waveforms and supports forward migration to new technologies with new waveforms.

    SDR is not yet an on-the-street reality. In particular, the development of a public safety portable subscriber set is hindered by a number of technology requirements including battery capacity, antenna development and physical form factor. Overall product cost is also a concern. Finally, a major impediment to fielding a useful SDR product will be the licensing of intellectual property and patents. Each of the major public safety waveforms, with the exception of analog FM and Project 25 digital, will require negotiations with the manufacturers who own particular waveform patents, potentially introducing major delays in implementing SDR. However, SDR will be a reality in the next few years and it will be up to agency managers to determine its appropriate place within their community.

    Today the NPSTC is working with the Software Defined Radio Forum to answer recent questions posed by the FCC in this exciting new area of technology, answers that will shape the future of spectrum allocations and spectrum sharing for both commercial and government users for the foreseeable future.


    The NPSTC National Support Office maintains a Web site at that provides access to current reports and publications and links to other public safety sites. It serves as the entry point to the CAPRAD system. Many Agile publications can be downloaded from the site. The NSO also has copies of an Agile interoperability resource CD that includes most recent National Institute of Justice publications related to public safety wireless activities. Of particular importance to police chiefs and to midlevel managers who have wireless communications responsibilities is the recently revised publication Understanding Wireless Communications in Public Safety. Authored by knowledgeable practitioners, this book is one of today's most authoritative and unbiased texts providing a high-level view of the many wireless issues and technologies impacting today's public safety communications centers and field services. Included on the CD, this and other publications are available in printed form from the NSO by calling 800-416-8086.

    1The National Telecommunications and Information Administration regulates spectrum used by the federal government.
    2The term "broadband" generally describes the wireless transport of data at speeds of two megabits (250,000 characters) per second or more. For comparison, the typical telephone line modem today transmits data at 56,000 bits (7,000 characters) per second. Broadband wireless enables the real-time transport of photographs, videos, and large documents not possible across today's typical narrowband public safety radio systems.
    3Agile and Safecom are two federally funded programs that are discussed in other articles in the communication series.


    From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 4, April 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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