Government Technology

Beyond Interoperability

March 1, 2007 By

In 1998, scarcity in the radio spectrum drove Santa Clara County, Calif., officials to look at alternatives to radio communication. Police departments in Santa Clara joined an initiative that evaluated county radio systems, in order to prepare for future radio spectrum changes. Around the same time, fire departments in Santa Clara County worked on a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system to quicken emergency response times. It soon became clear to county officials that technology could combine voice and data information, and that two projects from fire and police had more in common than previously thought.

As a result, in 1999, more than 30 law enforcement, fire and medical services agencies from all 18 Santa Clara County jurisdictions formed the Silicon Valley Regional Interoperability Project (SVRIP), to enhance coordination and communication between public safety agencies.

Praised Progress

Nine years later, the SVRIP is at the forefront of the interoperability movement. And the project has garnered accolades and recognition from many agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which cited it as a "best practices" model for interoperability.

In January, SVRIP representatives were one of three regional delegations to give an interoperability presentation to new Democratic leaders on the Homeland Security House Committee. SVRIP representatives also gave a presentation at the Industry Leaders Forum in 2006 and the DHS SAFECOM Program's Emergency Response Council national meeting. SVRIP officials say their progress is praised as "a model of interoperability and interagency coordination for the United States."

"I think [interoperability] is one of the most important priorities," said Sheryl Contois, technical services coordinator of the Palo Alto, Calif., Police Department and vice chair of the SVRIP Executive Steering Committee. "We're glad to see that Congress, the Department of Homeland Security and the president see it as an equally important priority. It's probably one of the most significant changes in public safety that will occur and has occurred."

In a practical sense, interoperability is the ability to communicate in a variety of ways. For the SVRIP, interoperability has meant strengthening interagency coordination, and enabling the region's first responders to exchange critical information and resources. The SVRIP has accomplished these objectives in a cost-effective manner by finding solutions through existing systems.

"We tried to look at what we can do with existing systems within the hierarchy of the previous systems," said Dale Foster, chief of the Gilroy, Calif., Fire Department. "We asked ourselves, 'How do you use existing technology and existing resource dollars without upsetting that kind of balance that goes on with each jurisdiction, and make it better?' And that's the driving philosophy of what we did."

All Tied Together

As part of its voice-data wireless system, the SVRIP established five projects that will allow seamless voice and data interoperability between emergency responder agencies in Santa Clara County.

The interoperability backbone for the region is the E-Comm Regional Microwave System and a private broadband wireless network, which is now being built. E-Comm is a 19-site regional microwave network that will be the "information highway" for future voice and data communication countywide, enabling emergency responders to securely share and exchange information. Because existing systems will use E-Comm, other public safety agencies will save money. The SVRIP is also working on a plan to link the E-Comm network to the federal network in Washington, D.C., with a cost of $50 million for each region.

In addition, San Jose State University is building a private broadband wireless network that will serve its campus police, local law enforcement and fire departments. The network will help coordinate the search for missing students; and support applications, such as CALPHOTO, the state's database for law enforcement records and identification information, and CalGang, a database of gang members and local criminal information.

Another emerging SVRIP project is the Bay

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