Nextel Direct Connects With The Fire Service

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In day-to-day communications and during times of emergency, the fire service and all public safety organizations need interoperable communications capabilities - the ability to communicate within an organization and across geographic, organizational and jurisdictional boundaries. Over and over, catastrophic events demonstrate that even with the best public radio communications systems, a parallel and reliable communications network is critical to the successful management of emergency incidents.

During the sniper attacks in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia last year, the critical need for interoperability was highlighted once again. During the course of the multi-jurisdictional manhunt, Nextel provided more than 550 handsets through its Emergency Response Team (see article on page 98) to local, state and federal law enforcement, command centers and community school systems to facilitate rapid, reliable and interoperable communications.

A powerful illustration of the pivotal role interoperable communications can play in public safety is provided by the story reported by Lieutenant Sean Egan of the District of Columbia Fire Department. During the investigation, Engine 16 was returning from a medic call in the District when it observed a white van matching precisely the description of the sniper suspect vehicle. He first tried calling 911, but the system was overwhelmed with callers and he could not get through. Immediately, he turned to his Nextel phone and, using Direct Connect - the powerful long-range walkie-talkie feature - he contacted his brother, a watch commander with the U.S. Park Police who was working in the Joint Operations Center of the Sniper Task Force.

Egan relayed the information and within minutes law enforcement converged on the vehicle from every direction. Unfortunately, as we all learned, the information linking the white van to the attacks was erroneous. However, the importance of a parallel communications system that can circumvent traditional radio and cellular communications was underscored.

Interoperable and reliable communications, however, are equally as important in day-to-day operations. Like most fire departments, the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department (CFD) uses cellular technology in addition to our land mobile radio communications system. This redundant form of communication repeatedly proves its worth when vital connectivity is needed and other public safety radio communications systems are not the appropriate medium for communication.

Last year, Charlottesville Fire Chief Julian H. Taliaferro (also IAFC treasurer) and I began using Nextel handsets equipped with Nextel Direct Connect. Nextel Direct Connect works much like an 800 trunked two-way radio, but is embedded in the Nextel handset along with other features such as all-digital cellular, text and numeric messaging and data applications.

Today, the CFD has issued Nextel phones for every in-service fire unit, our fire dispatch center, and for every chief officer and fire prevention personnel. In the simplest terms, we have added a secondary or better-described "parallel" 800 trunked radio system without the expensive infrastructure costs. In fact, the only costs incurred for this redundant communications system is the monthly wireless service fees for each handset.

Organic & Unplanned Growth

What has happened in Charlottesville can best be described as "organic and unplanned growth" of an interoperable emergency service community. On a parallel path, the Albemarle County (our neighboring county) Police Department had been testing the Nextel telephones within their department. Captain Crystal Limerick explained that they too found Direct Connect to be an invaluable tool and are expanding their use of Nextel phones. The Albemarle County Fire-Rescue Department, which we serve contractually with automatic mutual aid, also implemented Nextel phones. Now we communicate via Direct Connect for both routine conversations and during emergency operations.

Following this lead, the University of Virginia's environmental health and safety director, Dr. Ralph Allen, implemented Nextel phones to provide interoperable communications between the University safety staff and the CFD during emergency incidents. In addition, the Charlottesville emergency communications director and emergency service coordinator also implemented Nextel phones and the Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad, the University of Virginia Police, University of Virginia Facilities Management and several other emergency service agencies are evaluating and considering deploying Nextel phones as an interoperable communications strategy.

My personal experience has proven that Nextel Direct Connect has improved communications within our department. Quite often during an incident, I contact the Fire Alarm Office via Direct Connect saying, "Chief 2 to Fire Alarm on Nextel." I am quickly answered without disrupting tactical traffic and without interference from foreign radio traffic that plagues our present radio system.

As a member of the Secure Virginia Initiative and its First Responders Interoperability Working Group, I have seen the beginnings of an affordable interoperability solution that could be used by many communities. At one of the working group meetings, I noticed that a fellow group member, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Captain John Diamantes, had a Nextel phone. We quickly exchanged our Direct Connect IDs and regularly talk and discuss interoperability issues while in transit to and from our meetings via Direct Connect.

The Williamsburg Fire Department put Nextel phones in-service July 2002 with all of its officers and fire inspectors. Deputy Chief Bert Geddy stated, "They have been a tremendous help with both routine and emergency operations. There are many details that occur day-to-day in a busy fire department like ours and the Nextels have improved efficiency a great deal."

During Colonial Williamsburg's Grand Illumination last summer, there were three fireworks sites, with 30,000-plus people all crammed into the Colonial Williamsburg historic district. Geddy noted, "Nextel was used by the city police department, Colonial Williamsburg security and the Park Service and we communicated flawlessly."

"This year for the first time we used medic bike teams and Nextel," Geddy said. "We had several EMS calls and were able to access and evaluate the patients on bikes. Our tactical channel is used by the fire inspectors at each fireworks site so using the Nextels gave us another dimension." He further explained, "We find Nextel useful in keeping station coverage backfilled during busy times. James City Fire Department also uses Nextel and we have automatic mutual aid with them. Responding mutual aid personnel having difficulty with an unfamiliar address can be 'coached' to the correct location off of the main radio channel. It's great for communications and that all important buzzword, interoperability."

A trend is emerging within the fire service and public safety community - one based on the use and performance of a technology that works to deliver interoperability today. International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Executive Director Garry Briese said, "It's not surprising to see this development. Firefighters by nature are initially skeptical about untried technologies, but they are also very creative. Once firefighters are able to successfully test something like Nextel Direct Connect, they will accept it, use it, share it and own it. Firefighters are best known for creating solutions where none seem to exist."

Interoperability In Times Of Need

Nextel Direct Connect is more powerful than just providing two-way dispatch service. It can serve as a critical and reliable means of communication when other wireless and landline telephone systems become overloaded. When a crisis occurs such as the D.C.-area sniper attacks or the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, the public telephone switches are stressed with congestion. During these situations most wireless telephones (even Nextel) are rendered useless as traditional cellular calls are routed through these public telephone switches.

Communications via Nextel Direct Connect, however, are not affected by congestion on the public telephone switch network as Nextel Direct Connect functions independently of these switches. Direct Connect also allows for the development and use of talk groups that can be used for daily operations and emergency management situations.

Arlington County Fire Chief Ed Plaugher said after the 9/11 Pentagon attack, a situation that created overwhelming radio traffic congestion, "Nextel phones and Direct Connect were invaluable to our operations. The Nextel phones never went down during the Pentagon operations." Plaugher also said that at the time of the Pentagon incident, not many other Arlington County departments were using the Nextel phones, so there was not as much benefit as there could have been. He also said, "In order for interoperability to be truly successful between agencies it has to involve the use of equipment that people are familiar with, the Nextel phones make the most sense because we are using them every day."

The Direct Connect feature of the Nextel phones is phenomenal, but it is getting better. On Jan. 6, 2003, Nextel enabled and rolled out the first phase of Nationwide Direct Connect. Those markets include New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, New England, Florida, Southern California (Los Angeles and San Diego), Southern Nevada (Las Vegas), Baltimore, Washington D.C., Virginia, Philadelphia and Central Pennsylvania.

A traveling fire chief can now stay in touch with the department on day-to-day issues as well as with incident commanders during an emergency. Nextel has announced plans that will allow any Nextel customer to contact any other Nextel customer via Direct Connect anywhere on the Nextel network. This capability will be available later this year. Imagine the interoperability solution that is created among emergency service commanders regardless of organization, jurisdiction or geography.

The Future For Interoperability

The emergence of a hybrid public safety communications system that integrates public safety land mobile radio systems (LMR) with wireless communications networks is now on the horizon. I like to imagine a system that lets Nextel customers interoperate with an existing two-way public safety radio system.

Nextel's Custom Network Solutions group has implemented dispatch consoles capable of interconnecting LMR systems with Nextel's digital Integrated Digital Enhanced Network (iDEN). Once connected, the console provides interconnection among the two-way radio, public telephone, paging, and other voice and data connections such as security monitors and production databases. This consolidation allows the management of a complex combination of services as a single, integrated solution that can work with radio communication systems like Motorola's ASTRO, SmartNet, SmartZone and other proprietary control networks.

The managed use of Nextel services integrated with traditional communications systems has the potential to change public safety communications as we know it.

Nextel's Emergency Response Team

Nextel's Emergency Response Team (ERT) is tasked with cross-functionality developing, coordinating and managing the company's resources to meet the needs of public safety organizations and personnel. In the event - or threat - of an emergency, ERT provides communications capabilities and technical expertise to city, state, and federal emergency workers, disaster relief agencies such as the American Red Cross, utilities and other essential infrastructure organizations.

Using breakthrough technology such as satellite cellsites on wheels (SatCOWs), ERT is able to immediately mobilize wireless communications to multiple emergency sites, regardless of whether there is Nextel coverage in the area. Whether the need is to respond to a natural disaster, terrorist attack or criminal investigation, or to manage large-scale security events, Nextel's ERT is a critical asset in communications planning.

Sept. 11, 2001. Immediately following the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, District of Columbia Fire Department Engine 16 was mobilized to assist in the evacuation of the White House. Initially, the evacuation was slow until an unexpected commercial aircraft turned toward the White House. Engine 16 Lieutenant Sean Egan reported that the situation quickly turned to chaos and that women were literally running out of their shoes to escape. Meanwhile, a second alarm for the Pentagon sent over the departments' main radio disabled his ability to communicate with the other first alarm companies.

"I tried contacting them over the radio system to no avail," Egan said. "I then turned to my Nextel and used the two-way radio feature to order them to relocate and stage at a safe distance from the White House."

Nextel provided more than 8,000 phones to emergency workers in the aftermath of 9/11. When other cellular and traditional phone networks became inoperable due to congestion, Nextel Direct Connect emerged as the single viable means of communication for public safety responders. A brother of an FDNY firefighter who died at the World Trade Center commented, "We tried using every other cellular telephone and they didn't work and we tried them all. Nextel's walkie-talkie was the only service that worked with others; it was the only way we could communicate."

La Plata, MD, tornado. Nextel provided 80 wireless phones and Nextel's services to support local, state and federal emergency workers responding to those affected by a devastating tornado in La Plata, MD. Volunteers and public safety officials used Nextel Direct Connect to maintain consistent communications between the command center and the field during the relief and recovery efforts.

Mount Hood rescue. During the Mount Hood, OR, rescue in May 2002, Nextel phones with Direct Connect were exclusively used by Mountain Wave Emergency Communications, a search and rescue (SAR) organization that coordinated the overall communications for the rescue of nine climbers trapped on the mountain. Mountain Wave set up a comprehensive communications network that connected nine private, military and public safety organizations, including the Army National Guard, U.S. Air Force, Clackamas County, OR, Sheriff's Office and U.S.D.A. Forest Service.

Arizona Rodeo-Chediski wildfires. In June 2002, the Arizona Rodeo-Chediski Wildfires presented unique communications challenges. Nextel provided 175 phones to emergency workers battling the largest wildfire in Arizona history, including the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, Arizona Fire Management Division, Gila, AZ, County Sheriff's Department and the Forest Service Law Enforcement Group. Nextel also deployed three cell sites on wheels (COWs) in Tonto National Forest to further ensure consistent and comprehensive communications coverage for emergency communications via Direct Connect.

Charles Werner


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. His e-mail address is wernerc@charlottesville.org.

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