Many 911 Dispatch Centers in the United States remain vulnerable to natural disasters and terrorism, years after the 9/11 tragedy despite earnest efforts by the public safety agencies that depend upon them for communications.
During this time, local governments that operate 911 centers took well-meaning and essential steps to improve their survivability -- many facilities were upgraded, backup power installed, and where all ready installed the backup power sources were overhauled, serviced and updated. All good steps.
But public safety personnel, and the public they serve, remain vulnerable due to the design of the 911 communication systems. In most populous areas, including the urban centers, the architecture of the communication system(s) are “monolithic”.
What does this mean? Monolithic systems are inherently dependent upon central control. For instance, all trunking radio systems require a central controller in order to function. Any system offering simulcast (the ability to transmit a field radio and be "heard" by multiple receivers at multiple tower locations) is inherently monolithic.
Most designers (and their government customers) of these radio systems have asked for redundancy in order to survive the compromise of part of the system, or even the destruction of the central control function, and this can be provided... but it doesn't eliminate the vulnerability of the system. No central control functioning, then no communications functioning.
A vivid example of this is provided by the 800 MHz trunking system used by the New Orleans Police Department, which failed during Katrina. The entire system survived the initial storm and was capable of operating at full strength with all of its features, except for the failure of one critical part that went unnoticed in the early hours of the storm.
What Can Be Done?
We strongly recommend to all of our clients that they must be able to operate even when the surrounding infrastructure is compromised, destroyed, or just overloaded.
We believe the most cost-effective method of providing this survivable operability is a backup radio system utilizing IP Radio.
IP Radio is inherently distributed, with no central control. Like the Internet itself, IP Radio was first designed and deployed for use in the battlefield where disrupted connections and even the destruction of whole sections of the communications network is expected.
Even if only part of an IP Radio system survives the damage of the event, it will keep operating, typically without intervention by technical personnel.
Monolithic radio systems will not work at all until they are working completely, and this will require skilled technicians. As in the New Orleans Police Department failure, the system was restored relatively quickly... once technicans could access the equipment. Unfortunately, that took days.
How Is IP Radio Used For Backup?
Every 911 system and public safety agency is different, so the prescribed solution varies. But generally, we tell our clients that there are five basic steps:
1. Design and implement an IP Radio architecture that is overlaid onto the existing radio system to provide a backup, not to replace it.
2. Upgrade each high-point radio transmitter (or as many as budget will allow) with interface between the existing radio equipment and internet IP. This can be done with a third-party device, or the transceiver can be replaced with a modern version that offers IP connectivity directly out of the transceiver.
3. Provide two or three forms of internet access to each high-point radio transmitter, even if broadband internet is already available at the site. This backup internet access is to be used if the primary access is compromised. There are multiple alternatives that can be used: satellite, cellular broadband internet cards, WiFi 802.11, and in some areas, WiMax.
4. At the 911 Center, install similar “backup” internet access, completely independent of the existing broadband internet access.
5. Define an alternative operating location to the 911 Center, which can be as modest as two laptops in a waterproof case, to a full-scale EOC (Emergency Operations Center) in a hardened building equipped with hundreds of computers. Whatever the plan, install similar "backup" internet access.
Obviously the design and implementation of such a system can be more complex, and it raises a number of issues, the first of which is whether to use a private internet network (yes, of course, if it is available) or the public Internet (yes, as a backup should the private network fail).
Also the system can be phased in, with the first phase as little as one or two computers in the 911 center, and a single high-point transmitter on one channel. In a catastrophic failure of the old-style monolithic radio system, that single remotely-controlled radio on the internet accessed from a single laptop may be the best radio on the air!
Once the initial investment is made to install IP Radio for at least one position in the 911 Center (or the EOC), and at least one high-point transmitter, then we have a dispatch console. This means that "911" can operate from a temporary location such as a high school gym, while transmitting and receiving with the power of a high-point radio location.
This same idea is explained in greater detail in our information about
Virtual EOC design with the same advantages: flexibility of location, radio control, and scaling the number of console positions.
Can't I Do The Same Thing With My Existing Dispatch Console?
Legacy dispatch console vendors have offered a degree of remote-control capability for years, and the best of those are offering it via the same basic IP technology. We often help our clients use the IP features of legacy consoles.
But we should be clear: using a proprietary dispatch console (either hardware or software) is, well, proprietary. You can only have as many dispatch "consoles" (laptops or PCs) as the proprietary vendor will support. And the radios controlled will be specific to that dispatch console vendor.
We prefer an open architecture, where an all-software solution is used to establish the IP Radio functionality. This permits the use of any hardware, an especially important consideration for the budget. We can often use existing high-point radio transceivers rather than enduring the cost of replacing them.
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