P25 still is a challenge for support staffs
Apr. 16, 2013-Glenn Bischoff | Urgent Communications.

During the past two decades, Project 25 (P25) has been developed as a leading public-safety communications standard, but those charged with supporting and maintaining the interoperable nature of these systems have seen challenges, according to panelists at the International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE) last month.
More About: Interoperability

When it comes to Project 25 digital radios, cost still is a significant barrier to entry. While the standards suite—more than two decades in the making—finally is fulfilling the promise held for it regarding interoperability, the ability to mix and match subscriber units has not yet resulted in the dramatic price reductions that many imagined would result from increased vendor competition.

But there are other challenges. One concerns maintaining radios from several different vendors, said Karl Larson—public-safety project manager for the city of Portland—who participated in a P25 panel discussion last month during the International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE).

“Competition, particularly for the subscriber units, is very important,” Larson said. “But since we maintain all of the public-safety radios in Multnomah County … when you have nine different radios, the radio shop is concerned about the number of templates, how long it’s going to take to do all of that, and how they’re going to maintain all of that.

“So, what we’ve done is split our RFP process into two processes,” he continued. “We have an infrastructure RFP that I’m reviewing right now, and then—in 2014—we’ll be issuing a subscriber RFP that will get more into that competition. We want to structure it somehow so that we don’t have nine [radio types], but maybe a top tier, middle tier and lower tier, so that we can limit the number of maintenance problems that we might have at the shop.”

Tom Sorley, deputy director in charge of the city of Houston’s radio communications system, said he’d like to see future iterations of the standard include a common template that all vendors would use. Short of that, Sorley encouraged vendors to create troubleshooting databases that would ease the maintenance burden.

“Come up with use cases or known scenarios—create a knowledge base—so that when a person who owns a Harris radio system and they program an Icom radio, if they get this problem—whatever this problem is—they can go to the database to find out what the trigger was the last time someone had this issue,” Sorley said. “In order to religiously encourage competition, I’ve got to be able to support it.”

Another step in the right direction would be to add a component to the Inter-RF Subsystem Interface (ISSI)—the interface that connects disparate P25 systems by establishing roaming between authenticated users—that would address system migration.

“You have systems that have had multiple revisions from the same manufacturer,” said Steve Devine,  interoperability program manager for the Missouri Department of Public Safety. “So there really is a need for a standard system interface, whether it’s between two vendor systems, or even within a single vendor system that happens to be at different revisions.

For example, the city of Joplin, Mo., uses the same Motorola P25 system that the Missouri statewide network is using, but the latter system operates at a different software revision. Because each revision has different features and capabilities, incompatibilities result that negatively affect interoperability, Devine said.

“So, there needs to be something in the ISSI that would promote intersystem [migration between] multiple vendors, as well as within the same vendor at different revisions—that would really be helpful,” he said.

When upgrading, it is vital that system operators ensure that operability isn’t compromised, Sorley said.

“One of my neighbors upgraded to an newer version of the operating system on their radio, and the ability for a certain type of roaming that they used for the other vendors would no longer work,” Sorley said.  

“Not only did they break the other manufacturers’ radios, they broke their own. They would still operate in a basic functionality mode … but if you have a feature that’s not basic functionality, but is a primary feature that makes your system usable, [breaking] it can have some big issues.” 

A stark reminder of why training is so important in any system.
Apr. 11, 2013 by Glenn Bischoff in Urgent Matters/Urgent Communications.

Training often seems to be the first item cut when budgets are tight, but a recent New York transit incident provides vivid evidence of the importance of proper training.
A few days ago, a New York City transit worker encountered a grave situation, as reported by an item that I found on Yahoo News. A man had fallen onto the tracks and was convulsing. The transit worker—55-year-old Danny Hay—immediately tried to radio the agency’s control center, with no success (the story provided no details concerning why the communication failed). So, Hay ran to a station booth and told the person manning it to contact the control center and tell those in charge to cut power to the electrified third rail.

When Hay returned to the scene of the emergency, he discovered that two patrons had jumped down onto the tracks to try to help the stricken man. That wasn’t all that he discovered: a rush of air from the tunnel was the unmistakable sign that a train was coming—and that the third rail still was electrified.

So here’s the situation at that moment: three people, one of which is suffering convulsions, are on the tracks, with a train bearing down on them, only a few feet from a rail that can fry them should they come into contact with it.

Thinking quickly, Hay ran to the end of the platform and used his flashlight to signal the train operator to stop before he entered the station. According to the story, transit workers are trained to utilize a series of signals to communicate with each other when normal communications are unavailable.

The title of our franchise is Urgent Communications, and undeniably this particular episode qualifies as such, with three lives at stake. What impressed me most was what Hay did after normal communications failed, not once, but twice. This is important, because communications can fail, for myriad reasons. When they did a few days ago in Manhattan, Hay had only a few seconds to assess the situation and determine what to do. The fact that he was well trained resulted in incredibly quick thinking that saved three lives.

The moral of this story is that communications training is vital. And as this episode illustrates, training should not just encompass how to use the communications technology; it also must encompass how to respond when it isn’t working. Because of his training, Hay was able to communicate without any technology at his disposal. That’s awesome.

Yet, after a decade in this industry, we still hear complaints about inadequate communications training. Funding—or, more accurately, the lack of it—is the big bugaboo. The federal sequester likely is exacerbating the situation, but the problem always has existed—there always seems to be something more important to fund.

If you could track down the three people who found themselves on the subway tracks in Manhattan last Sunday, I think they would argue that point. They are alive today because the transit agency planned for the contingency of communications failure and ensured that its employees knew what to do when it happened.