August 18, 2016
During the days of analog FM two-way communications, it was possible for public safety first responders from different agencies to communicate with one another over the radio, especially if their units were using the same frequency band. And if not, at least with scanning receivers, they could listen to other agencies and have some idea of other agencies’ emergency responses.
Along came digital communications, and then the ability of one agency to communicate with another by radio became more complicated. The word “interoperability” found its way into endless discussions. It carried particular importance in metropolitan areas with multiple cities and counties where incompatible versions of radio communications would hamper the coordination of multijurisdictional emergency responses.
From a manufacturer’s viewpoint, a simple solution would be for all those jurisdictions to settle down and buy all of their equipment from the one manufacturer. Interoperability solved.
It seemed for a while that a standard for digital radio communications promulgated by the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials International, dubbed APCO Project 25, could lead to interoperable communications. And at some level, it did, although not all public safety agencies have upgraded to digital radio and thus have not been able to take advantage of the standard.
The standard allowed for some customization by manufacturers to be offered as extra capability beyond the basic requirement. Agencies that came to rely on these extra capabilities found they posed at least some small barrier to interoperating with other agencies using different manufacturers’ equipment. And the continued use of different frequency bands posed barriers.
Along comes the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) and the prospect of a nationwide public safety wireless communications network on a common frequency band. The more widely state, county and city public safety agencies choose to use the FirstNet network, the greater interoperability they will enjoy. Already, some early adopters of FirstNet-like technology have begun operating their own systems.
Some say the FirstNet network doesn’t have enough radio-frequency spectrum to carry out its mission, or doesn’t have enough funding, or both. Skeptics of the FirstNet network are easy to find, perhaps because of the decades-long inability to achieve interoperability for public safety agencies. The endeavor has a most worthwhile goal, however, and perhaps it won’t be too many more years before it becomes more clear whether success lies ahead for the FirstNet network.