Law Enforcement, Military Share Information Challenges

July 2006
By Robert K. Ackerman
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Similar hurdles encumber bringing new technologies and interoperability to public safety.

The U.S. Justice Department is facing problems similar to those of the U.S. Defense Department as it tries to enable communications interoperability among civilian public safety organizations. It must ensure that any of thousands of different communications systems can interoperate during times of crisis, but those systems often have been procured independently without any applied standards.

The Justice Department is handicapped in pursuing broad-based technology solutions because it lacks the level of funding the military receives to seek communications interoperability. But, because public safety now is facing many of the same challenges that the military is striving to overcome, the civilian sector is able to tap the defense community for solutions to a greater degree.

At the forefront of the Justice Department’s efforts at public safety communications interoperability is its National Institute of Justice (NIJ). Dr. John S. Morgan, the NIJ’s assistant director for science and technology, explains that the institute’s responsibility covers more than 19,000 law enforcement agencies, each of which is independent of the federal government. It works with law enforcement and other public safety organizations in virtually every state in the union, often through a series of regional centers.

“Our biggest challenge is to be able to respond to the huge number of requirements that public safety has for new technology, both in the communications realm and elsewhere,” Morgan states. “We have more than 200 high-level requirements that have been identified to us by public safety practitioners in just the last year, and we are able to address only a small minority of those problems with the resources that we have,” he adds. “It’s a great frustration.”

Part of the problem is that when the federal government devotes funds to solving these problems, it does so in a patchwork manner, Morgan charges. Some agencies around the country will benefit from the small amounts of money available for public safety communications, but little knowledge is gained that could be applied to others. Public safety as a whole has not benefited as much as it could from federal investments, he says.

Improving the nation’s public safety communications infrastructure is an expensive proposition. Morgan points out that the cost of the infrastructure is considerably greater than the annual investment in it. At least $20 billion of this infrastructure needs to be replaced to provide for nationwide public safety interoperability. With annual expenditures running nowhere near that amount, Morgan estimates that it would take at least a generation—under even the best of circumstances—to achieve public safety interoperability. And, that daunting quest is not a new one.

“NIJ was involved with interoperability back before interoperability was cool,” he offers.

Morgan assumed his position at the NIJ roughly three years ago, and he charges that public safety interoperability has not changed enough since then. The communications problems that were faced during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks remain a major impediment to effective critical incident response. The same hurdles exist for day-to-day law enforcement incidents in many jurisdictions in the United States, he adds.

The greatest impediment to what Morgan views as essential changes is the continued use of proprietary communications on state and local levels. “The major suppliers of communications equipment to public safety [agencies] are not providing open-architecture, standards-based communications solutions to the public safety practitioner,” he declares. “As a result, state and local agencies are forced into proprietary solutions that are more expensive, especially over the full life cycle of that equipment. That is why it is so critical for the federal government to assist state and local agencies by providing leadership in standards development,” Morgan concludes.

The NIJ is working closely with the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials–International, Inc. (APCO) in the development of its APCO Project 25, or P-25, standard. This effort aims to establish voluntary industrywide standards for digital two-way radio technology. The NIJ funds the chairmanship of the P-25 standard steering committee and a public standards committee under the Telecommunications Industry Association, among several elements.

The APCO effort has completed more than 34 technology standards already. But Morgan estimates that it may take as many as 90 standards for public safety interoperability. Most of the remaining standards will be more abbreviated than the existing 34 because they largely will be modified versions of the existing standards tailored to fit new technologies. “Without a full suite of P-25 standards, long-term public safety interoperability will be very difficult, if not impossible,” he states.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is working with the NIJ on P-25 standards. Morgan admits that many NIJ and NIST tests have revealed systems that are not actually P-25-compliant in the common area interface despite claims to the contrary. He emphasizes that the key will be the development of compliance-testing programs that ensure true standards compliance.

“In the next three to five years, you are going to see the emergence of a true set of robust standards backed up by a compliance-testing program, and that will be a huge benefit to this arena,” Morgan predicts.

Among the standards that Morgan cites as requiring development are the inter-sub-system interface (ISSI), which will allow a mobile unit to roam transparently into another compatible system with complete communication; an ISSI-compatible telephone interconnect; and the network management standard interface. Other standards targeted for enhancement are the fixed station interface to ensure easier and more complete console access; the console interface standard to ensure greater transparency; mobility, to improve ease of access during roaming; and the data interface to ensure transparent system-to-system data transport on a more ubiquitous basis.

But the NIJ’s support of the P-25 process is not its only effort to enable interoperability. The institute also is supporting a full range of other necessary standards, Morgan adds.

“The completion of the P-25 standards by itself will not solve the standards problem,” he says. “Even if we had all of the P-25 standards accomplished and we had perfect cooperation from industry, there are dozens of other standards that will be necessary to achieve interoperability.”

For example, sharing data has become as important as sharing voice communications. Yet most public safety data systems do not talk to each other using common data standards. The latest Global Extensible Markup Language (XML) standard helps provide data tags and structures, but only in a limited range. This covers the adjudication of violent felonies, but not necessarily the data for communication at a critical instant. While data interoperability is improving slightly with developments such as the Global XML standard, Morgan warns that it is a harder nut to crack than voice interoperability.

The Justice Department is working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in a joint effort to move beyond the Global XML standard to the National Information Exchange Model, or NIEM. This model should provide a framework in which data interoperability standards are implemented, Morgan offers.

As with the military, interoperability is an ongoing challenge. But, operability also is a problem. Communications are not as reliable as they need to be on a day-to-day basis within agencies, Morgan observes.

The federal government’s Safecom initiative helps empower leadership to improve interoperability, Morgan notes. The NIJ has concentrated its resources on enabling technologies for public safety communications interoperability and operability. This allows the scientific research organization to contribute to long-term challenges in both.

At the heart of the NIJ’s communications research effort is its Communications Technology portfolio, or CommTech. CommTech research areas focus on technologies that leverage efforts in the commercial and military sectors.

Among the top communication and information technologies targeted by CommTech are software-defined radios, cognitive radios, voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), advanced wireless voice and data, and in-building location and communication technologies. These can play a vital role in improving public safety communications, Morgan points out.

The NIJ has “significant investments” in software-defined radios, he says. These radios permit users to program various waveforms at different frequencies, and they would allow communication among multiple jurisdictions with disparate radio systems. “[These radios] will be an important component of interoperability solutions for the long term,” he states.

The NIJ is working with the U.S. Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare (SPAWAR) Systems Center, Charleston, South Carolina, on its Dynamic Open Architecture Radio System, or DOARS. This gives the NIJ access to Defense Department software-defined radio developments.

The next five years may see the commercialization of software-defined radio technologies, Morgan offers. This will encourage industry to provide much more cost-effective solutions to public safety, he adds, and it will be a powerful driver for both interoperability and operability.

A related technology target is cognitive radios. These radios would be smart enough to know which frequencies and which approaches to take to communicate most effectively with another radio. They would alter their transmitter parameters, based on interaction with the radio environment, without human intervention. Ultimately, cognitive radios might allow users to negotiate for spectrum use in real time without prior agreement between parties.

Some military systems incorporate cognitive radio ideas, Morgan points out, as do some cellular networks. The NIJ is funding Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University to build a prototype cognitive radio for public safety applications. It would be able to recognize and interoperate with commonly used public safety waveform standards, and it will be based on National Science Foundation work on cognitive radio techniques.

The use of both software-defined and cognitive radio technologies should allow public safety practitioners to roam freely around the country and to communicate effectively with their colleagues, Morgan warrants. These systems should emerge in the next few years with significant effect, he adds, as larger communication system manufacturers would be able to provide more cost-effective radios.

In addition, the institute is working on near-term solutions that would allow better spectrum planning and use. The most prominent of these efforts is the Computer Assisted Precoordination Resource and Database, or CAPRAD. The National Law Enforcement Corrections Technology Center’s (NLECTC’s) Rocky Mountain regional technology center in Denver developed and administers the CAPRAD database. In coordinated efforts with the Federal Communications Commission, the database allows agencies to examine which unallocated 700-megahertz frequencies can be reserved locally. When the 700-megahertz band becomes available, the agencies can license those frequencies immediately for use in their radio systems.

“This allows us much more effective planning for the move into the 700-megahertz band than was possible before,” Morgan explains. “It allows you to do it in real time. Instead of waiting a year to know whether you are going to get those frequencies, you can find out immediately.” He adds that the NIJ hopes to extend this approach also to the 800-megahertz band.

Another effort to boost planning is the Virginia Statewide Communications Interoperability Planning methodology, or SCIP (see page 49). Adopted as a national model for state-level planning and cooperation by the federal Safecom program, SCIP emerged from cooperative work among Virginia authorities, the NIJ and Safecom. It provides a framework for states to work with their local jurisdictions across public safety boundaries to develop a long-term plan for achieving effective interoperability, Morgan declares, and NIJ leadership hopes that it will be adopted by states around the nation.

In addition to work on software-defined radios, the NIJ is pursuing several cooperative avenues with the Defense Department. Morgan relates that the institute’s major efforts with the department involve leveraging defense technologies. Many of the switching technologies that the NIJ has encouraged in the public safety community originated in the defense arena, he points out.

The Defense Department has “several orders of magnitude more money” than the NIJ to invest in technology development, so the department’s flexibility in building new communications technologies is much better than that of the institute. Accordingly, the NIJ seeks opportunities within the military arena in which to leverage its work.

Supplementing the DOARS effort, the NIJ is closely monitoring the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS). While the NIJ is not working with the military on the program, JTRS may provide solutions that could be useful to public safety, Morgan suggests.

One of the NIJ’s needs is to improve the operability of communications systems in difficult environments. The military is involved in developing many advanced technologies that address this need, Morgan notes, and the NIJ is monitoring that work.

The NIJ uses the military laboratory system and commercial research to improve its capabilities. Morgan cites as an example how The Aerospace Corporation, El Segundo, California, runs the western NLECTC center. It currently is undertaking a major assessment of communications technology for public safety that also will examine many military communications technologies. This may allow public safety users to employ a broader range of military communications equipment.

But that is not to say that a given defense communications solution fits civilian public safety needs. Morgan relates that “cautionary tales” exist of technologies that have been released into the public safety community without being properly evaluated. In particular, he notes that military command and control (C2) systems that were “very important to military operations” worked well in the defense arena but were failures when ported directly to state and local law enforcement agencies as C2 or intelligence systems. “It takes a critical eye to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff in that realm,” he states.

The key to adopting the right defense communications technology may lie in “understanding the need to adapt it,” Morgan offers. The DOARS effort is a good example of that approach, he adds. NIJ experts recognized this technology as a software-defined radio system that could be used within a lot of different communications systems in the public safety arena, and it had “a fair amount of maturity” for specific military applications. Even so, NIJ experts have to do “a fair amount of work” at SPAWAR to be able to move it into the commercial and public safety sectors, he admits.

“We recognize that there is no ‘one size fits all’ for public safety,” Morgan says. “So we worry a great deal about how to evaluate those technologies and adapt them appropriately to the public safety sector.”

From private industry the NIJ needs most a commitment to open architectures and standards, Morgan declares. This includes compliance testing against those standards to demonstrate that communications systems are truly compliant for public safety.

The NIJ needs the ability to evaluate communications technologies on a practical level in public safety environments. First, equipment must be shown to actually operate as promised. Then, its effect on public safety operations must be demonstrated.

The institute is engaged in cooperative programs with several state and local agencies and industry partners in which new approaches for communications interoperability have been implemented. The NIJ’s only role is to evaluate the effect of those technologies on issues such as critical incident response times and technical interoperability between agencies, Morgan emphasizes. This gives field organizations objective information about the true effect of their investments. Industry receives the stamp of approval from an honest broker trusted by the public safety community.

“We encourage industry to partner with us and with state and local agencies as they implement new technologies,” Morgan offers. “We’d be happy to examine and evaluate many of those approaches and practices.” He adds that industry can contact the NIJ either directly or through its NLECTC centers.


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