Interoperability is a key aim of emergency services around the world but one of the main challenges is the use of different technologies and equipment by various agencies. As the ideal aim of common technology platforms is confronted to the realities of budget allocations, Canadian mobile communications provider BaseCamp Connect believes it has a solution that makes interoperability easier without costly and lengthy programs.
In 2003, a U.S. National Task Force in Interoperability was formed at the National Law Enforcement Technology Center. In the opening pages of a document still available today, they summed up a common and universal issue. The document « Why Can’t We Talk? » mentions that « The inability of our public safety officials to readily communicate with one another threatens the public’s safety and often results in unnecessary loss of lives and property ». More than 15 years later, this situation is unfortunately still true.
Some recent events in Canada highlighted the same issue. Here are 2 probing examples:
On May 1, 2016, a wildfire swept through Fort McMurray, Alberta. The wildfire destroyed 2,400 homes and buildings, and a mandatory evacuation order was issued for 90,000 people. The fire spread across approximately 590,000 hectares (1,500,000 acres) before it was declared to be under control on July 5, 2016.
According to a government report, Municipal and Provincial fire authorities weren’t operating on the same radio frequencies. “Consequently, at critical times, when municipal and wild-land firefighters were not physically working together on the ground, they could not directly communicate by radio to identify priorities or support each other,” the report said. “This was particularly problematic when it came to air attack. Alberta Forestry aircraft had no way to forward a direct message to municipal firefighters”.
“Likewise, municipal firefighters had no way of asking for support or directing air-tanker drops; in some instances, they resorted to physical signals that the aircraft could see.” Needless to say, interoperability of radio signals was an issue in this situation.
Lac Megantic train derailment
The Lac-Mégantic rail disaster occurred in the middle of the night on July 6, 2013, when an unattended 74-car freight train carrying Bakken Formation crude oil rolled down a 1.2% grade slope and derailed downtown, resulting in the fire and explosion of multiple tank cars. This disaster killed more than 40 people and the blast levelled 30 buildings in the town’s centre (about half of the downtown area) with numerous others demolished due to contamination. Initial newspaper reports described a 1-kilometre (0.6 mi) blast radius.
This catastrophe, the biggest of its kind in Canadian history, brought in 1000 firefighters from 80 different departments of Quebec, Ontario and Maine to battle the fire. In the wake of this incident, a regional committee focusing on Hazardous Material transportation recommended in a 2016 report that the Provincial framework for disaster site coordination be mandatorily applied by municipalities. The framework mentions flexibility and interoperability of operations as key points to address.
Instances like the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, have published documents explaining/describing guidelines, or best practices. One, the Interoperability Continuum, outlines the different stages of interagency collaboration, from simple to complex scenarios, detailing areas from governance to training. On the technology side, data and voice (i.e. radio) go from simple file and radio swaps to complex standards-based shared systems.
As we are advocates of standards-based initiatives, we also realize that our customers reality involves also time, resources and budgetary constraints, leaving some gaps in their effectiveness to respond and collaborate in large/unplanned events. Cost as it happens a very important element for most, if not all, of the Public Safety organisations we talk to. A proprietary shared system is everyone’s dream, but the size & cost of such a project makes it unattainable for a lot of agencies. Anyone who recently deployed a new radio system replacing legacy radios knows the deployment and funding of that kind of project is a huge undertaking in time, logistics, and money. Timing can also be a factor: if an agency switched to newer technology radios just a few years ago, they might not want to invest again for a few years as they are absorbing the cost of their recent upgrade.
Our point of view
We think a mix of more inclusive and complex training and standards-based documentation sharing can be put forward with more simple, easy to use technology solutions that can bridge gaps with currently used equipment.
Fully-integrated shared systems can potentially leave some non-Mutual Aid partners out, who rarely share radio frequencies with public safety but still need to be brought in to common channels when an emergency requiring Mutual Aid occurs. For them, large infrastructure costs are not the appropriate solution, but the need to connect is still there.
When performing a customer needs assessment, we are looking at the customer working environment, surroundings and current equipment they have that they can leverage with a unifying platform like the BaseCampConnect.
Concerning working environment, knowing who’s around, like school districts, private companies like Chemical plants, proximity to Ports/Airports, and other instances helps understanding the frequent and less frequent needs. Knowing what’s around, like the physical environment/topography also helps to uncover some common communications gaps (radio communications in caves & tunnels) that they might not have though about before and is the starting point for discussions on possible solutions.
Coverage is almost always discussed, and we try to find the most cost-effective ways to work around those issues without being coverage experts. High-power repeaters increase coverage, and in some cases (Mountainous areas) some systems increase coverage by being located on a mountain top temporarily. HF solutions used by S&R teams are also a good option for bad coverage since they are not as sensitive to dead spots caused by irregular topography. A recent case study we wrote with a New Hampshire Sheriff department illustrates this perfectly.
How we build an interoperability-ready system
The BaseCampConnect unit incorporates a phone system with a unique inbound number, a modem providing internet access (wired or wifi), and a simple radio bridge in a portable format that sets up in 5 minutes without the need of complex training or the use of computers. All 3 components play a different role and are essential to carry work in planned as well as unplanned events. As networks can be unpredictable, multiple network connectivity with redundancy/automatic failover is built-in in all our units, without the need of user intervention. The unique inbound number allows anyone to call in the response team regardless of which network they are operating on.
Interoperability involves not only radios but also data exchange. These days, access to the internet is just as important as voice communications, and so BaseCampConnect provides data access in a variety of ways, much as it does with voice. Available networks can be connected to the system or, if available, wifi can be used so staff can have data access. If the emergency is in a remote area where networks are unavailable, a satellite antenna is used to connect the team with voice and data.
Finally, and most importantly for most agencies, the system helps bridge the many different radio technologies in use by today’s emergency services, from UHF to VHF, P25 to Tetra, and so on. The radio bridge works with all analog, digital, conventional & trunked radios, and allow interoperability of up to ten different systems, plug and play, with up to 4 different talk groups. Recently, the NATO communications branch successfully tested the BaseCampConnect radio interface to evaluate the encrypted-to-encrypted radio communications. Since radios are also connected to the BaseCampConnect phone system, they become an extension of it. This means that someone can dial the inbound number and get transferred to a radio talk group seamlessly, crossing the bridge between phone and radio systems. Other options like a PTT phone app linked to the system are also available.
The simplicity, ease of use, and straightforward operation of the different parts of the BaseCampConnect system make it one of the most powerful yet affordable communications solution out there.
For more information, go to www.basecampconnect.com/public-safety-communication-systems/