July 7, 2009 By Elaine Rundle
On July 2, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate announced the organizations that will participate in the pilot phase of the Multi-Band Radio Project. The project's goal is to address the challenges of interoperability and produce a radio that enables emergency responders to communicate regardless of the radio band they operate on. In 2008, the directorate awarded Thales Communication Inc. a $6.2 million contract to demonstrate a portable multiband radio.
"The fundamental issue in interoperability is the inability of agencies from different jurisdictions arriving on scene at a major emergency to communicate with each other," said David Boyd, director of the DHS' Science and Technology Directorate's Command, Control and Interoperability Division. "Most of the resources that arrive in any emergency, especially initially, are local and then the next level at state and then typically the federal government comes in after that. Our challenge is to allow all of them to communicate with each other seamlessly."
Boyd said at least several hundred organizations were interested in participating in the project's pilot phase. Criteria for participating agencies included a willingness to play, according to Boyd. "We're not just handing out a radio," he said. "We're looking at collecting data back, lessons learned, experiences in the field. So we're after something that's larger than just 'We'll give you a radio and walk away,' because we're trying to prove out what this equipment is and find out what else we may need to do with it."
The Science and Technology Directorate also was looking for a variety of agencies to participate. Boyd said the project needed small organizations to pilot the radios to ensure that the technology works for rural first responders, but the radios also need to work with urban and multijurisdictional environments to address their needs. Finally the department wanted to test the technology in geographically different areas.
The 14 organizations participating in the pilot are:
The organizations will each conduct at least a 30-day pilot beginning in fall 2009, and the results are expected to be published in early 2010.
The pilot testing represents the final phase in the testing and evaluation portion of the Multi-Band Radio Project. During the first two phases -- which included laboratory testing and short-term demonstrations -- the directorate received feedback from local, state and federal participants that was incorporated into the multiband radio that will be used in the pilot.
Boyd said some of the feedback included making the radio's knobs larger -- firefighters found it difficult to handle the knobs when they were wearing protective gloves. "The second one is that initially the panic button was located right next to the antenna, which meant that they couldn't get to the thing," he said. "So they wanted it relocated; it's been done."
The directorate also is working with the vendor to improve the radio's volume level. Boyd said audio level is an issue for all radios because of the loud environments emergency responders work in.