Talk Trumps Tech in Silicon Valley

By Joseph Straw

It stands to reason that California’s Silicon Valley would lead the country in establishing a network of interoperable communications for first responders. And it does—but not for the technological reasons you might think.

Santa Clara County has pursued interoperability since 1998, when it formed the Silicon Valley Regional Interoperability Project (SVRIP) a consortium of 30 police, rescue, and healthcare agencies with the goal of having the nearest agencies respond to public safety incidents, even if they had to cross town lines.

In such cases, the initial town’s dispatch center would receive the 9-1-1 call, pinpoint the incident’s location, determine the nearest first-response assets, then, if necessary, contact the neighboring jurisdiction via landline, setting off their normal dispatch procedures.

SVRIP has five separate projects under various stages of development, all aimed at achieving voice and data interoperability among all the agencies involved in emergency response.

First, members established the BayMACS, the Bay Area Mutual Aid Channel System. While the program does not boast a silver bullet allowing “talk around” between rank-and-file members of different agencies, it allows incident commanders to talk between four separate regional frequency bands via a main patch.

The second project, currently in a pilot phase at seven of the region’s 13 dispatch centers, links local computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems to facilitate communications in a cross-jurisdictional emergency response effort. Incident and response data still appear on local dispatch screens as before. But now the systems also have data fusion software manufactured by FATPOT Technologies, which translates the incident data in a manner that allows it to be simultaneously presented to neighboring jurisdictions, appearing on existing dispatch screens as if the call originated in that town.

“The dispatcher sees what they would normally see, but with more situational awareness,” says Sheryl Contois, technical services director for the Palo Alto Police Department and vice chairwoman of the SVRIP Commission.

The CAD integration system has cut mutual-aid dispatch time from as long as 20 minutes to four seconds, Contois says.

The third project of SVRIP calls for voice and data transmission via aerial microwave signal. Using federal Urban Area Security Initiative (USASI) grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Bay Area has committed to participate in a regional network of 19 antennas linking ten counties, with the first expected to be operational in summer 2008.  Fiber optic landlines will serve as a backup, Contois says.

For its fourth initiative, SVRIP has issued a request for proposals to construct a mobile voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) radio system that would provide specific talk groups—like traditional radio channels—for voice communication across the region.

Finally, by 2009, the region hopes to launch a secure broadband network throughout the region, allowing mobile transmission of both voice and data in emergency response.

The program has cost nearly $14 million to date, much of that from UASI grants’ and it is expected to require another $60 million, $50 million of that for the public-safety broadband project, slated for development in San Diego and the National Capital Region, Contois says.

DHS spokesman Christopher Kelly said that together, SVRIP is assembling a sophisticated solution that represents the “system of systems” approach advocated by the agency’s Science and Technology Directorate.

Emergency communications experts often say that culture—not technology—is the greatest obstacle to interoperable communications.

Tom Tolman, a former investigator with the National Institute of Justice, recounts the story of one local police chief who refused to use a costly patch because he couldn’t stand his counterpart in a neighboring town.

In Silicon Valley, the cultural impetus is to network. Contois credits the leadership of the heads of the organizations involved. “We work very collaboratively here, and they made it very clear that they wanted it to work,” she says.

Chief Stephen Lodge of the Santa Clara Police Department acknowledges the challenge of spurring collaboration among agencies. He advised his counterparts around the country to “keep your eye on the goal” of interoperability.

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