Government Technology

Public-Safety Interoperability and Digital Cities: What Are the Requirements?

Interstate 35W

February 11, 2008 By


Photo: The collapse of Interstate 35W near downtown Minneapolis, taken about an hour after the disaster.

The inaugural Public-Safety Interoperability Roundtable at the 15th W2i Digital Cities Convention in Washington, DC, (December 11-12, 2007) provided an early view onto emerging policy requirements for interoperable public-safety networks. Ken Boley, Director of Wireless and Public Safety Programs in the Office of the District of Columbia's CTO, moderated the Roundtable. He kicked off the discussion with an update of the National Capital Region's efforts.

Interoperability Across Jurisdictions
After September 11, the National Capital Region, with its 21 jurisdictions, became a focal point of the interoperability discussion. It is one of the most complex interoperability environments in the country and includes the District, Loudoun, Fairfax, Arlington, Prince William Counties and Alexandria City in Virginia, as well as Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland.

Today, the District of Columbia is transitioning from its Wireless Accelerated Responder Network (WARN), a successful pilot for public safety, to a new 700-MHz Regional Wireless Broadband Network (RWBN) that will enable a robust set of tools and applications for police, fire and other emergency personnel, and could serve as a test bed for the planned national public safety network.

The NCR Interoperability Program, which Boley oversees for the District's CTO, includes completion of the RWBN to 106 sites. "The idea then is that everyone would interoperate on the same level, on the same concept as the national network," Boley said. The project will cover more than 2,400 square miles and all population centers within the Region.

    * NCR Net, or iNets, will provide basic, secure interoperability over all jurisdictions. Between 8 and 10 jurisdictions connected now, with completion "not far out past the fiscal year."
    * A data exchange hub, where each jurisdiction is hooked into one other, will enable interoperability of data. Before this can be put into place, however, all the MOUs and protocols on a simple government-to-government basis must be worked out, so there must be a certain compatibility.

Boley said: "You're talking about building a single network to encompass all the jurisdictions. Where you're in a position to start off fresh, maybe interoperability isn't that big of an issue, but it depends on who you're trying to network with. Are you talking regionally? Across agencies? Within your own jurisdiction? What do you all see that are the big interoperability issue?"

Interoperability and Applications
Interoperability requires coordination not only across multiple jurisdictions but across networks and applications as well. Lynn Willenbring, CIO of the City of Minneapolis, provided a case study: the massive public-safety response following the Minneapolis bridge collapse on August 1, 2007 and use of the city's new Wi-Fi mesh network by multiple agencies.

"Once you take the four levels of government, I counted up 18 different agencies that were involved: police, fire department, the park board, sheriff, the state patrol, transportation, state homeland security, and the University of Minnesota. At the federal level, FEMA, DOT, TSB, FBI, Secret Service, Coast Guard, and the Navyâ?¦and then all of our mutual aid agencies that offered to help. When you talk about interoperability, we are a perfect case study."

At the same time, the response included timely useage of the City's Wi-Fi mesh network to support video surveillance and GIS mapping. Minneapolis already had 800 MHz for voice, but for data, "the Wi-Fi was priceless," Willenbring said. Service provider USI Wireless opened up the network for free access, and the local media scrolled that at the bottom of the television screen. "That was very useful for emergency responders."

The response, she said, could be even faster in the future. "Cameras actually took a lot longer than it

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