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Over the last several months, I have received numerous questions about interoperable communication solutions and grant funding. Vendors and emergency service agencies alike have asked this question. In order to get the straight scoop, I asked David Boyd, the director of Project SAFECOM, to help clarify this issue. SAFECOM is an E-Gov initiative created by the President's Management Council and provides grant guidance on these issues for state and local governments. The big question is the reference to P25 and whether an interoperable solution has to be P25 compliant to be eligible for these funds.
On July 23, at the Firehouse Expo Communications Interoperability Forum, Boyd explained SAFECOM's position on the federal grant money, some of which has been identified as eligible for interoperable communications solutions. "We would like to have jurisdictions and vendors that are buying things be in the direction of P25, and to try to think in terms of how we make sure that in the future we can get to a P25 Standard," Boyd said. "We do not mean that a viable rational solution is necessarily disqualified because it is not fully P25 compatible, and that's not what we sent out. In fact, if you are colliding with that, I'd appreciate if you'd let me know so we can talk to the appropriate people."
Boyd continued, "What we did want to do is get ultimately to an environment in which we have real interoperability, that means in the near term we would like to have things which don't preclude P25 compliance as we begin to migrate forward. But P25 and P25 Certification is not a prerequisite under the SAFECOM guidance. We don't see it that way, we do not read it that way and we did not mean it that way."
In a memo dated July 31, Boyd outlined a recommended response to standards issues in the Interoperability Grant Program by stating: "The emphasis remains on the applicants' ability to show that whatever their equipment needs/plans are, they lead to broad public safety communications interoperability.
"The intent of this joint grant program is to ensure that the communications equipment being procured with these monies will lead to improved multi-disciplinary and/or multi-jurisdictional interoperable public safety communications. The grant guidance and enclosed attachment provide a list of questions to be answered in order to demonstrate how the applicants' proposed project will enhance interoperability. The guidance also encourages that - where appropriate - applicants purchase equipment that meets standards that have been developed and adopted by the public safety communications community - ANSI/TIA/EIAA-102 Phase 1 (Project 25) suite of standards. This recommendation is intended for government owned or leased land mobile public safety radio equipment, and its purpose is to make sure that such equipment or systems are capable of interoperating with other public safety land mobile equipment or systems. It is not intended to apply to commercial services that offer other types of interoperability solutions and does not exclude any application if it demonstrates that the system or equipment being proposed will lead to enhanced interoperability. The SAFECOM program grant guidance does not propose to preclude funding of non-Project 25 equipment when there are compelling reasons for using other solutions. Absent these compelling reasons, SAFECOM intends that Project 25 equipment will be preferred for digitally trunked radio systems to which the standard applies." To clarify even further, I asked Boyd, "Do I understand you correctly to say that the vendors present like Motorola, Nextel, Smartlink, Catalyst Communications, JPS, ICRI, M/A COM, Network First and others are eligible solutions with the provision that they achieve interoperable communications between first responder agencies and/or jurisdictions?" Boyd said, "Yes."
While it is the goal of SAFECOM and supported by most large emergency service organizations to achieve P25, it is not feasible that it is the solution for all agencies now. This is primarily due to funding limitations. In the short term, it will most likely require multiple solutions to achieve interoperability. While the funding is not available today to achieve P25 compatibility in all localities, there is enough grant funding from the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice to deploy many interoperable solutions.
A specific note: If an agency or department is buying a digitally trunked radio system, then it should be P25 compliant. What SAFECOM is saying is that the equipment purchased doesn't have to be P25 compliant because a digitally trunked system may not be the answer for all agencies. SAFECOM does not want to force anyone to buy something not suitable for their situation; if a digitally trunked system is deemed suitable by the locality for the situation, it should be P25 compliant.
The guidance set forth in recent competitive grants references the following critical elements. First, achieve 100% interoperable voice communication between first responders. Second, achieve interoperable communications between multiple jurisdictions. Preferably both. A regionalized plan that embraces the state and national strategies is the desired outcome.
Charles Werner, a Firehouse® contributing editor and the TechZone editor for Firehouse.com, is a 26-year veteran of the fire service and currently serves as the deputy fire chief for the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. Werner also is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Communications Committee, chair of the IAFC Technology Advisory Group, technology chair/webmaster for the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association, communications coordinator for the National Fire Academy Alumni Association and webmaster for the National Incident Management System Consortium. In addition, he serves as the Commonwealth of Virginia's Interoperability Coordinator. His e-mail address is email@example.com.