NPSTC in Action: Confronting Issues Hampering Wireless Telecommunications

As those in public safety have long known and many official reports have codified, there are five key issues that hamper public safety wireless telecommunications today. There is a serious need for more radio spectrum, technologies to enhance the use of that spectrum, funding for planning and coordination, standards to enable equipment that can communicate across jurisdictions and disciplines, all of which will support the fifth key issue — the critical interoperable communications capability that saves lives and property in major disasters and in every day incidents.

The National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) reflects the key elements required to provide mission-critical public safety telecommunications in the makeup of its four standing committees — the Interoperability, Spectrum Management, Technology and Regional Planning Committees. The final component — that all-important human factor needed for planning, governance and coordination — is inherent in the way NPSTC develops its positions and recommendations to support public safety telecommunications through the consensus of its 14 member organizations, derived by discussion, research and more discussion.

Who is NPSTC? NPSTC represents the collective voices of law enforcement, firefighters, EMS, transportation, radio folks — from in-the-field first responders to techies to the amateur radio community. NPSTC is frequency coordinators, telecommunication directors, and forest, fish and wildlife administrators.

"Our work has never been more important as the breakdown in communications experienced during Hurricane Katrina so poignantly illustrates. Hurricane Katrina graphically illustrated what emergency responders have known for a long time," says NPSTC Chair Vincent Stile. "We need to explore new technologies to bring about interoperability and to provide redundancy to public safety telecommunications. We need to work together across disciplines and promote and use common nomenclatures before catastrophic events occur. We need more radio spectrum to communicate with each other and to utilize life-saving technologies. We need to plan wisely and utilize the valuable resources that exist in the Regional Planning Committees (RPCs) and the State Interoperability Executive Committees (SIECs)."

What NPSTC Does

NPSTC serves as a standing forum for the exchange of ideas and information, and works to identify and promote methods for funding development of public safety communications systems. NPSTC also performs research, conducting studies of public safety communications, and uses research to stay abreast of user needs. NPSTC communicates information on technology, research and policy issues to the field through its website at and through its quarterly newsletter, npstc spectrum, and its online publication, What you need to know today, and through informational panels at public safety meetings.

As representatives of the public safety community, NPSTC has prepared a number of filings to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). NPSTC's first filing was in response to FCC Docket 96-86 concerning the initial rules for the 700 MHz public safety band. "This NPSTC filing was the largest and most detailed filing ever made to the FCC by the public safety community," says McEwen, "and that filing laid the groundwork for many of the FCC's later decisions on the 700 MHz band."

In 2004, the FCC adopted a Memorandum Opinion and Order (MO&O) on issues surrounding the 50 MHz allotted to support the broadband wireless needs of local and state public safety agencies in the 4.9 GHz band. When the FCC indicated that it wanted more technical detail on the issue of interference under a looser emission mask, NPSTC created a very detailed simulation of a public safety communications scenario that clearly demonstrated to the FCC that public safety can use this spectrum very effectively without the need to go to a stricter mask, placing constraints on current equipment.

NPSTC played a role in the resolution of the 800 MHz interference issue, helping to educate the public safety community, the public and the FCC on the Consensus Plan for 800 MHz resolution. After many months of discussion, on Aug. 6, 2004, the FCC issued a plan with short- and long-term components for improving public safety communications in the 800 MHz band.

In early February 2006, Congress finally passed digital television (DTV) transition legislation in its budget reconciliation bill, which was amended by the U.S. Senate at the end of last year, and was ultimately passed by the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 216 to 214.

"A key benefit of the 700 MHz band spectrum for public safety telecommunications is that it will allow for new and expanded multiagency communications systems to promote interoperability among first responders in the field," says Alan Caldwell, representing the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) to NPSTC's Governing Board. "While there are many causes and solutions to the interoperability problem, in many cases the most effective long-term solution is to consolidate agencies on the same radio system, or at least on systems in compatible frequency bands."

Developing Positions

NPSTC's Governing Board is made up of representatives of each of the 14 member organizations. When NPSTC adopts a formal position on an issue, it does so by obtaining a consensus from its voting Governing Board members, which any official NPSTC recommendation or policy position requires. NPSTC's "voting members" are the 14 member organizations that make up the Governing Board, represented by individuals eligible to vote on behalf of each organization's constituencies. Depending on the specific issue, Governing Board representatives often have to get formal approval from their respective organizations. A consensus does not necessarily require unanimity.

NPSTC actively seeks out the participation, expertise and feedback of public safety and other individuals to be included among the many voices clamoring to be heard in ongoing discussions of communications technology, interoperability, spectrum, planning and legislative issues. NPSTC participants are invited to share their points of view by joining committees and working groups, attending NPSTC's quarterly meetings, and interacting via the website and listservs. Anyone who is interested in these issues is welcome to become a NPSTC participant.

NPSTC has three levels of membership — which is different than most traditional organizations that have a board and voting membership — member organizations, which are the 14 public safety organizations; liaison or associate organizations, which consist of officially participating federal agencies and industry associations; and at-large participants, any individuals or organizations that have an interest in public safety communications. Although NPSTC participants cannot vote, they have an important voice and role in developing consensus and knowledge as the council seeks to make recommendations that are truly representative of the collective voice of public safety telecommunications.

As NPSTC seeks to understand the complex technical and policy issues surrounding many of the public safety telecommunications recommendations that the council may make, the Governing Board needs to hear from a wide variety of operational users, engineers and representatives of industry and government. The viewpoints expressed and debate of issues from NPSTC participants at the quarterly NPSTC meetings and listserv discussions are very important in providing as broad a base of informed input possible as the Governing Board develops positions to take back to the boards of their individual organizations for their consideration.

As noted, NPSTC has four standing committees, each with a chair and vice chair, appointed by the Governing Board, and comprises a number of working groups, each with its own lead as well. The officers must be employees of a public safety or public service organization as defined in the PSWAC Final Report or a recognized organization that represents these entities. The committees, generally through their working groups, are responsible for conducting research, writing position papers, and giving presentations at various meetings and conferences at the request of the Governing Board.

"The working groups meet on the first two days of our quarterly meetings," says Ward, "and do a great deal of the work beforehand that is brought to the Governing Board. They also interact extensively via conference calls and e-mails, but the face-to-face meetings are critical to achieve agreement of the entire group."

The working groups interact with one another and the member organizations to provide details of research, by reaching out to subject matter experts and developing positions for the committee chairs, who in turn forward those positions with their comments to the Governing Board for approval. "In the past, NPSTC assigned task forces to study topics and make recommendations; however, as we have grown," Ward says, "we created the committee and working group structure to ensure oversight of all of the activities we are involved in or monitoring."

An Invitation To Join NPSTC

Secure, safe networks that are redundant and reliable for public safety don't just happen. Policymakers need input from users, and NPSTC strives to provide that input on a national level.

NPSTC urges public safety practitioners to add their voices to these important discussions by becoming an active participant in the National Public Safety Telecommunication Council. NPSTC's ongoing dialogue on national public safety telecommunication issues affects policies and technologies that affect local organizations every day. For more information, visit the website at

CHARLES WERNER, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 32-year veteran of the fire service and is fire chief of the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. He serves on the Virginia Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee, the SAFECOM Executive Committee and the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) Governing Board.

  • Forestry Conservation Communications
  • American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials
  • American Radio Relay League
  • American Red Cross
  • Association of Public Safety Communications Officials — International
  • International Association of Chiefs of Police
  • International Association of Emergency Managers
  • International Association of Fire Chiefs
  • International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies
  • International Municipal Signal Association
  • National Association of State Chief Information Officers
  • National Association of State Emergency Medical Services Officials
  • National Association of State Foresters
  • National Association of State Telecommunications Directors
  • Federal Communications Commission
  • National Telecommunications and Information Administration
  • Telecommunications Industry Association
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • U.S. Department of Homeland Security
  • Federal Emergency Management/Administration Telecommunications Industry Association
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture/SAFECOM Program/Office of Interoperability and Compatibility/Office of Emergency Communications
  • U.S. Department of Interior
  • U.S. Department of Justice/CommTech Program

Currently, NPSTC is working on policies and issues in the following areas:

  • Securing additional spectrum resources
  • Broadband in 700 MHz and 4.9 GHz
  • Radio common channel naming
  • Statewide planning
  • Broadband voice and data interoperability
  • Effective spectrum management and deployment
  • Wireless alerting
  • Amateur radio
  • Software Defined Radio (SDR) and Cognitive Radio (CR) technologies
  • Narrowband technology transition
  • VHF spectrum reconfiguration
  • U.S./Canadian/Digital Television (DTV) Transition for the 700 MHz band
  • Standards development
  • 800 MHz interference resolution and band reconfiguration
  • Statewide Interoperability Executive Committees (SIECs)
  • 700 and 800 MHz Regional Planning Committees (RPCs)