Federal Grants Applied to Interoperable Communications

Over the last several months, I have received numerous questions about what interoperable communication solutions are eligible for grant funding. Vendors and emergency service agencies alike have asked this question. In order to get the straight scoop, I asked the Office of Project SAFECOM's Director David Boyd 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/controversial issue is the reference to P25 and does an interoperable solution have to be P25 compliant to be eligible for these funds.

On July 23, 2003 at the Firehouse Expo Communications Interoperability Forum, Director Boyd explained SAFECOM's position on the federal grant money, some of which has been identified as eligible for interoperable communications solutions.

Director Boyd stated, "Ok, 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. 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.

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 & 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".

FROM: David Boyd, SAFECOM Program Manager
DHS/S&TSUBJECT: Recommended response to standards issues in the Interoperability Grant Program
DATE: July 31, 2003

What follows is SAFECOM's recommended response to any applicants or vendors regarding the standards paragraph in the SAFECOM grants guidance document. 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 for the vendors that were present and others that provide interoperable communications solutions, I asked Director 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." Director Boyd responded with a resounding "YES".

The key difference is the near term solution and the vision of the future. While it is the goal of SAFECOM and supported by most of the larger emergency service organizations to achieve P25, it is not feasible that it is the solution for all emergency service agencies at the present. This is primarily due to funding limitations. In the interim (short term), it will most likely require multiple technology solutions to achieve interoperability. While the funding is not available today to achieve P25 compatibility in all localities, there is enough grant funding in the pipe from DHS and DOJ 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. We don't want to force anyone to buy something if it's not suitable for their situation.

If a digitally trunked system is deemed suitable by the locality for the situation, then 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.

In the future, I will have more information to showcase SAFECOM's role and how the emergency service community can be a supportive participant.