Urgent: Project 25 Certified, But Still Not Working

May 27, 2010 – “Today the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation held a hearing to review the status of interoperability for public safety communications systems that enable first responders from multiple agencies and jurisdictions to communicate. Specifically, the hearing discussed the status of the technical standards for public safety land mobile radio (LMR) systems.”

“We’ve learned an important lesson from September 11th, Hurricane Katrina, and other disasters: interoperable communication is critical to effective emergency response. When time is of the essence and lives are at stake, a clear flow of information is essential. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for police officers and firefighters from a single region, or even a single city, to be using incompatible communication systems. This lack of interoperability has contributed to the deaths of first responders and hindered the ability to rescue people in harm’s way,” stated Subcommittee Chairman David Wu (D-OR).

The reason that the communication system is inoperable is because that in 1989, Project 25, or APCO 25 was implemented, and  since then multiple problems have resulted from this. New digital radio became available, and federal, state, and local agencies were more than ready to adopt the new system. The transition from analog to digital has not been a smooth one.

Why adopt the new digital system? The main reason was to upgrade from outdated analog to modern digital radio standards. Initially, the rational thinking was that the more modern digital modes were supposed to perform much better than analog radio because the digital packets could tranfer more data than analog could. Analog systems use CTCSS, or tones, to break the squelch, and then talk.

But, there were many problems during the implementation of the Apco 25 system. One major problem was the cost; especially at a time in history when federal and state budgets were in the red. Another problem – overall functionality.

“The most important question for the first responders who rely on this equipment is “does it work?” In addition to being mission-critical technology, these systems represent major expenditures for government agencies across the country. Particularly at a time of uncertain and dwindling budgets, cost-effective procurement enabled by an open-architecture is essential,” added Wu.

Project 25

In theory, all P25 equipment is interoperable. In reality, interoperable communications isn’t possible without effective coordination. While new digital technology has the potential for better transmission capability, many P25 features present interoperability challenges. And primarily, too much bureaucracy will not allow for desperately needed standardization of new technologies available.

Basically what this means is this –  after 9/11,  after Katrina, and forwarding on to the next responder red alert, America’s first responders still do not have a standard, reliable, compatible communications system available for deployment. Standards needed to ensure interoperability in public safety communications equipment remain unattainable, especially when Congress is in charge of the project : )

Analog versus Digital

Analog equipment is less complex than digital equipment. Example:

Advantage:  In high-quality equipment, better ability to communicate in cases where a received signal is weak or noisy.
Disadvantage:  Only one conversation at a time can occur on each channel.

Digital communication modes are available.  Example:

Advantage:  More simultaneous talking paths are possible and information such as unit ID, status buttons, or text messages can be embedded into a single digital radio channel.
Disadvantage:  Radios must be designed to the same, compatible standard, radios can become obsolete quickly, cost more to purchase, and are more complicated.