What the Future Holds for Communications Interoperability

by Steve Cohan

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 put a spotlight on the gaps that existed and, in many jurisdictions, still exist between public safety agencies. Although most preparedness professionals would agree that it is critical to have interoperable communications, there are factors that hinder achievement of this goal. With careful consideration, agencies can overcome these hurdles.

Since the tragic events of 9/11 as well as numerous other events when communications were disrupted, a popular topic of conversation among first responders has been communications interoperability, which is the ability to use radio systems from one jurisdiction to another or from one discipline to another without the need for technical adjustments. It is the ability simply to be able to talk to each other. Unfortunately, this vision has not yet been fully realized. In every desktop or deployed exercise this author has participated in, communications always arose as the number one issue in terms of exercise performance.

Technical, Political & Cost Hurdles There are a number of reasons why this vision has not been realized. Some are technical in nature and some are for political and cost reasons. Cost requires no explanation since radios and systems are, in a word, expensive. Part of the reason for that is that most modern radios are more sophisticated and many now even have IP addresses, just like computers. Additionally, with the advent of data capabilities such as texting, geolocation, and handset remote control, these features simply cost more. Owing to the sophisticated nature of these radios, licensing of the onboard software (firmware) add to the cost. Add to that the fact that wide-area coverage requires more towers, need for simulcasting, and need for computer-aided dispatch (CAD) interoperability, and such interoperability becomes a very expensive prospect.

In addition, the “laws” of radio frequency do not change. So, frequency choice is a major consideration that ultimately affects interoperability. In the mountain states, VHF is the usual choice. On flat terrain, UHF or 700/800 MHz is the usual choice. Each frequency has different benefits and characteristics. VHF tends to “bend” around geographic topology such as hills, whereas the higher the frequency (700/800 MHz), the less radio waves bend making operations more line-of-site. Although higher frequencies tend to penetrate buildings better, they require more towers for line-of-site operation. The ability of digital computer-driven systems currently available for 700/800 MHz have the benefit of being able to handle large amounts of traffic as well as field unit control.

Site traffic also plays a part in choosing the right system and having a better ability to have interoperability. The more traffic on any given tower, the more chance that tower can become overloaded, thus denying users access.

Lastly, there are always political considerations. Most of these derive from prejudices concerning brands of radios or systems, cost, or vendor relationships. 

Legacy vs. Emerging Systems Because there are still legacy systems – both analog and digital – that are currently deployed as well as disparate radio and system types, panel patching and gateways have been popular to bridge networks to create an interoperable environment. When systems are working well and systems and people are not stressed, the ability to communicate among systems works well. But, like anything technical, under duress, physical destruction, lack of personnel to deploy systems, etc., some technologies may not work or may not work well. In other words, the more complex the system, the more chance for breakage. Some radios allow for “simplex” operation – that is, handheld-to-handheld communications without the need for repeaters or gateways, but the range is limited to line-of-site and these radios only work on the same frequency with the same modulation type.

New to this hodge-podge of radio systems is the need for data and visual communications (video streaming), which further add to the considerations for designing and implementing radio systems. A relative newcomer to all of this is FirstNet. FirstNet’s model is long-term evolution (LTE) 700/800 MHz on handheld devices similar to today’s current smartphones, the purpose of which is to be able to transmit various data types but do so on a network dedicated to first responders. This system is different than the traditional land mobile radio (LMR) systems. Inasmuch as this system is still under development with a few deployed test beds – such as the one in Adams County, Colorado – much work still needs to be done, especially in the area of site deployments.

In the end, the system will look similar to current cellular systems deployed by the four major carriers in the United States. It should be noted that wide-area coverage would no more likely be attained than current cellular systems give geographic and cost issues. Some first responders have expressed concerns that they would now be required to carry another handset along with their LMR radios and their cellphones. Eventually, more fully featured radios may solve this issue with combination cost-effective LTE/LMR radios but that is a ways off if it ever actually becomes reality.

Future Considerations Secondary considerations for system uptime include disturbances like electromagnetic pulse – or electromagnetic pulse disruptions or damage. These can happen from three general sources: (a) the sun with geomagnetic storms; (b) nuclear explosions; or (c) adverse pulse weapons events causing physical destruction. Should one of these events take place, the power grid itself could be damaged, as could radios, computers, antenna systems, routers, and so forth. Many of the current public safety radio systems are not adequately hardened to mitigate or prevent these kinds of destructive events. As such, these systems obviously would have a material impact on the ability to communicate via radios and have an effect on the power grid system, thus denying power to many communications centers or other radio systems, as described in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Quadrennial Energy Review.

It appears that in the next ten years or so, console patching and gateways will become the mainstay of interoperable public safety communications. There are simply too many disparate systems, radios, and – most importantly – needs for any one solution be the ultimate solution. Although these systems generally perform as expected, it would behoove every agency to consider alternative methods of communications should there be primary system failures. In other words, “You can never have enough arrows in the quiver if you intend to survive … and communicate.”


Steve Cohan is currently the national coordinator for the Joint Communications Task Force (JCTF), vice chair of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) InfraGard National Electromagnetic Pulse-Special Interest Group (EMP-SIG), and vice president of the Board of Directors for FBI InfraGard Denver. He has served 44 years in law enforcement and public safety in a variety of positions including patrol, investigations, communications, administration, and training. He has served with the JCTF and its predecessor for over eight years. The JCTF was originally conceived and operated within the City & County of Denver Police Department and Combined Communications Center, and has since become a national organization. His expertise is in the area of law enforcement, communications, and information technology.