Communications interoperability has been an issue for many first responders, fire, police and EMS included. That issue becomes particularly extreme in the case of a major fire, natural disaster or terrorism - events where mutual aid between multiple agencies becomes vital.
Thales Communications, Inc., has introduced the Liberty?, the first multiband software defined Land Mobile Radio (LMR) for government agencies and first responders. For the first time, federal, state, local and U.S. Department of Defense agencies are able to communicate across all of the public safety bands 136-174 MHz, 380-520 MHz, 700 MHz and 800 MHz using a single portable radio that operates in direct mode or uses existing infrastructure in any of the bands.
The root cause for interoperability issues remains the same --multiple users in different frequency bands using different waveforms. Until Liberty, the only solution for improved interoperability has been a network-centric approach, said Steve Nichols, Thales' director of business development for homeland security and public safety.
"It meant either buying a whole new, very expensive network or doing a lot of complex work with an existing network to link all the people who wanted to communicate," he said.
Thales has specialized in developing software-defined radios for the military, a technology in use today in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The thing that these radios do that differs from the network-centric approach is we have used new technology to create a handheld device that will talk to a lot of different systems instead of just one," Nichols said.
Liberty is the size, weight and performance equivalent to existing single-band portable LMRs and eliminates the requirement to carry multiple radios to cover fragmented frequency bands.
"The issue for many first responders is that although there may be a standard, like the Project 25 standard, different agencies have different frequency allocations from the FCC," Nichols said. "You might have a police department in UHF, a fire department in VHF and a state agency on 800 MHz. None of them could talk to each other because the radios up until now have only covered a single band."
The Thales Liberty gives a first responder a single portable with the ability to cover all the frequency bands and most of the modulation schemes, allowing the responder to link into the various systems operating today, he said.
"In the past you had users who were carrying two or three radios so they could talk to two or three people," Nichols said. "That problem is now solved with a single portable that can be programmed with many different channels and bands. You can talk to more people and have better interoperability."
The Department of Homeland Security is helping to fund final production. DHS is also involved in pilot projects to test the concept over the next six to eight months, Nichols said.
To date, most ideas on improving interoperability involve additional equipment at the dispatcher end of the system. That approach has inherent drawbacks, Nichols said.
"The plug-in switch approach really takes an extra technician to show up," he said. "He's got to get all his radios together, get them plugged in and then do all the patching. There is some audio clarity that's lost. There is the potential issue of not having the most current radio. You are also geographically limited to whatever fixed point you are operating from."
Another major drawback with the switch approach is that while one signal is coming in, as many as four or five transmitters are simultaneously transmitting out, potentially jamming the whole RF spectrum, Nichols said. Other responders needing to talk are crowded out of the system.
Thales' Liberty places the command of the switches in the hands of the commander on scene, not the dispatcher, Nichols said. By simply using his channel selector, he can contact the person he most needs.
"You don't need to call dispatch or anyone else for intervention to do any patching or make a cell phone call to a guy you can't find," Nichols said. "Literally, you simply move the channel selector from VHF to UHF to 800 MHz. In a simple and straightforward manner, you have interoperability."
Most agencies will have their mutual aid frequencies programmed into their radios in advance. Liberty gives incident commanders the flexibility to add additional frequencies as the emergency evolves.
"Many agencies would set up a radio and say, 'I've got 100 channels here - I'm going to lock them permanently into the memory of this radio,'" Nichols said. "But I have ten other channels that I'm going to use like a scratch pad memory. When we go to an incident, we will allow an incident commander to actually program a channel they weren't aware of before the incident."
Liberty is designed to meet stringent public safety specifications. It is a single, easy-to-use radio that provides all modes standardized for public safety use including Project 25 (P25) conventional, P25 trunked and legacy analog. Liberty offers Data Encryption Standard (DES) and Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) encryption with Over-The-Air Rekeying (OTAR) and all of the typical features that are available in LMRs today.
"Unlike other radio companies that have to improve their design to make it waterproof, Thales does not make a radio that is not waterproof and submersible up to two meters," Nichols said. "That's where our military heritage comes out."
All Thales radio housings are metal. Thales also offers an intrinsically safe version of its radios that can operate in risky atmospheres containing volatile fumes, he said.
"When you have a metal case, you can get a great seal on gaskets," Nichols said. "On some of our older models, customers put them in the sink and just hose them down to clean the dirt."