Interstate Interoperability

By Joseph Straw

It didn’t take an incident of national significance for city officials in Danville, Virginia, to understand the importance of interoperable communications.

Danville sits in Pittsylvania County in Virginia’s southern edge, right on the border with North Carolina. Often, suspect drivers flee local police and head south on routes 29 or 86, possibly hoping to evade capture across the state line. In those cases, Danville’s dispatchers have to pick up a phone and place a long distance call to their counterparts in Caswell County, North Carolina.

In the past, time was often lost, as was the accuracy of information, as it was passed through a virtual grapevine, says Major Dean Hairston of the Danville Police Department.

No more. Since September, Danville, Pittsylvania County, Caswell County, the Virginia State Police, and the North Carolina Highway Patrol are all linked, and none of them had to buy new radios.

The solution they turned to was Internet Protocol Interoperable Communications System (IPICS), manufactured by Cisco Systems. Based on the same technology as voice over IP (VoIP) telephone service, the network-based system takes analog radio voice transmissions, translates them to digital, then sends them through high-speed Internet lines to participating jurisdictions for simulcast on the appropriate frequencies.

The system allows creation of pre-set interagency “talk groups,” based on function and allows headquarters supervisors to override traffic on a given frequency.

Further, the region’s various dispatch centers are constantly linked via a VoIP intercom, allowing constant contact, even if one dispatch center is flooded with 911 calls during a major incident, says Morgan Wright, Cisco’s global industry solutions manager for public safety and homeland security. Because the system is network based, department members can access it anywhere via a secure, Web-based portal. Later phases of the program are slated to incorporate data and video sharing.

The project’s genesis came in 2005, when Danville Police Chief Philip Broadfoot met a Cisco official at a conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and shared his region’s interoperability woes. Cisco, meanwhile, sought a test bed for IPICS.

Wright attributes the program’s rapid success to cooperation among the jurisdictions. This intangible, more than the technology, agree leaders in the field, is the most critical factor in interoperability initiatives. To his knowledge, it is the only exclusively state-based interoperability project in the country between separate state police agencies.

Wright declined to offer an estimate of the project’s cost, but he said that interoperability through IP generally costs eight to ten times less than replacing or upgrading systems with new radio hardware.

The National Institute of Justice National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center-Northeast, based in Rome, New York, is overseeing the pilot project and plans a report on its effectiveness. County and local jurisdictions used NIJ grant funding to improve IT infrastructure, for the program.

The project took just two years from conception to launch, due in part to Cisco’s donation of hardware and services, and Sprint/NEXTEL’s donation of the cost of installation of high speed Internet lines, which the jurisdictions now pay to use.

The physical setup of the program took only one year, but it was not without challenges, Hairston says. In addition to participation from public-safety agencies, infrastructure installation required cooperation from the various jurisdictions’ public utilities and their government IT departments.

The program, officially called the Piedmont Regional VoIP Pilot Project, is governed by a memorandum of understanding between stakeholders and follows an agreed-on standard operating procedure.

Virginia seeks to ensure that first responders understand one another.  Last year, it announced plans for all state public-safety agencies to abandon “hundred code” terminology in favor of plain English to ease interagency communication.




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