Radio Rio Grande
First responders along the Texas-Mexico border can talk through one new system.
Before refurbishing, this typical shelter lacks proper coaxial entries. Photos courtesy Spade Condry
This new shelter completely replaced an environmentally unfavorable shelter.Photos courtesy Spade Condry
After refurbishing and installing the new trunk radio equipment, the shelter shows proper coaxial entries and a clean environment.Photos courtesy Spade Condry
Typical remote dusty site shelters. These conditions were corrected before installing new equipment.Photos courtesy Spade Condry
Typical remote dusty site shelters. These conditions were corrected before installing new equipment. Photos courtesy Spade Condry
FEATURED IN TECHNOLOGY AND COMMUNICATIONS
Interoperability is a key word circulating among the law enforcement community these days. Since the Sept. 11 disaster, more and more public safety initiatives have taken shape to reach the goal of complete communication.
Along the southwestern Texas border, first responders now communicate through a VHF trunked system, which allows them to travel through a nine-county region of more than 14,000 square miles without a lapse in coverage.
Along the border and across the country, the available pieces of the public safety VHF spectrum are limited, says Terry Simons, chief deputy of the Val Verde, Texas Sheriff s Department. When you look at the number of users needing to use that spectrum, there s just not enough to go around. This trunking system allows the available pieces in our region to support a larger number of users and have an autonomous roam capability.
Extending from the Hill Country to the South Texas plains, the Middle Rio Grande Development Council (MRGDC) is one of 24 Councils of Government (COG) in Texas. This governmental task force looks to promote economic growth, while minimizing the cost of living and working in the region.
Part of its mission in the last few years has been to make uninterrupted interoperability a reality for the first responders serving its communities, with four goals in mind: increased interoperability, spectrum efficiency and radio coverage, and a common records management system.
The Issue at Hand
This very remote and large area of Texas is home to just 18 law enforcement agencies where antiquated communication tools were becoming a cause for concern. Obsolete and trouble-prone equipment, channel congestion, co- and adjacent-channel interference and no wireless data left responders in the dark.
Vast and varied terrain only added to the problems. Three of the nine counties border the Rio Grande River. And, as next-door neighbors to Mexico, Val Verde and Maverick counties are becoming major ports of entry to the United States. Part of the COG is in the Texas hills, while the other lies in desert sands. In the hills, communications are shadowed in the canyons and ravines. In the desert, there s limited connectivity. These unique characteristics are challenges in the first responder world. Two major highways boast cellular corridors, but three miles from each highway, connectivity is nominal at best. Bottom line: Thousands of miles of terrain, almost 20 agencies and a varied landscape make for a communications nightmare.
A study was commissioned in 2004 with Texas A&M University (TAMU) to analyze the COG s existing communications infrastructure, and outline problems relating to public safety radio. We found a lot of problems, says Spade Condry, telecommunications coordinator for MRGDC. There was a lot of obsolescence, towers in remote locations, etc. Things were patch-worked together, and a lot of the communications shelters were in bad shape.
Input was also gathered from public safety representatives. The community echoed what the study had found, and noted a lack of coverage and interference from Mexico s radio systems. The TAMU study provided a sounding board for the Technology Improvement Project (TIP) to move forward and replace the existing system.
A Network for All Kinds
It only makes sense to me that we distribute a network that becomes the arena of all public safety entities, says Simons. In these IP-based systems, we re able to identify, on the fly, a radio that is committing misconduct. We also can isolate groups of users so they can only hear and speak to themselves. The TIP focuses on the infrastructure, explains Condry. Agencies acquire the necessary subscriber equipment, and the MRGDC puts it all together. Simons also stresses the importance of focusing on infrastructure first. Make sure you ve got the adequate number of towers, repeaters, controllers and switches, so the system works, he says. Then, if you ve got money left over, buy subscriber equipment. But if all we did is buy subscriber equipment, we wouldn t have anything to talk with.
Congressional earmarks have provided funds for the infrastructure, while local agencies have used Office of Domestic Preparedness money for Project 25 radios for a few years. We ve been planning for this for quite some time, says Condry.
These radios, set to a national suite of standards established by the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO), allow each agency to maintain its existing communications and move to the new trunked system when ready. (For more information on Project 25, see www.apcointl.org/frequency/project25 ). They also allow agencies to join common talk groups when necessary.
We have not pulled the plug on any of our membership, says Condry. We ve put in a parallel system. Agencies have all their existing equipment. When that becomes obsolete, they can fully move to the new system; some already have.
The issue, he says, is if the MRGDC pulled the plug on everyone s existing radios, a lot of people would fall through the cracks, especially volunteer responders. The process has been migratory, which also eliminates the problem of no communication capabilities if a glitch arises during development.
Today, wideband analog works for responders in the COG, as does the new, narrowband digital. All it takes is the turn of a switch and the miracle of digital technology. Condry compares it to a cell phone. Because this is one system networked together, you can drive from one side of the region to the other, and never have to change your channel, he explains. As you lose one tower, it automatically picks up another.
Some officers, he says, have questioned whether the ability for them to talk throughout the entire region is necessary. Condry explains that first, this is the same technology that allows them to talk in previously dead areas. Second, the ability to talk over a long distance is a bonus in some situations, especially for those driving squads in the vast Texas terrain. And officers alone in a car find comfort in knowing their communications are intact, all the time, wherever they may be.
A Word of Advice
Making efficient use of the available spectrum is one of the four goals of the TIP. Condry has devoted much time to this by finding frequencies that are compatible and most user-friendly for the public safety community s needs.
There are a lot more users out there than channels to go around, so the FCC has been pushing spectrum-efficient technology for quite some time, he says. Because we had the dollars, the emphasis on interoperability due to Sept. 11 and the FCC mandate, this was a perfect time to bring this all together, increase our interoperability and utilize some of the newer technology.
A major concern of finding available bandwidth was the interference from across the Mexican border. The FCC, Condry explains, sets communication standards, has a database with frequency coordinators and makes it easy to locate channels for use. International agreements provide rules and regulations. But across the border, we don t know exactly what could be there; we could run into a lot of surprises, he says.
To compensate for that uncertainty, the first trunked sites were installed at Del Rio and Eagle Pass, both semi-urban areas along the border. Condry explains the mission was to start at the border, ensure clear, secure channels and work eastward. We worked the unknown first, then as we progressed further from the border, consulted the FCC database, he says. These combiners and filters cost a lot of money. We didn t want to go back and redo a previous effort.
Condry advises any group undertaking a similar project to spend the appropriate amount of time on finding frequencies that are compatible and usable. Licensing one channel, he remarks, is not a big deal. But when you have a single tower you re operating three or four channels from, it becomes very important to ensure they will not interfere with each other.
He created a pool of available frequencies to pick and choose from. Protecting his and neighboring frequencies was imperative, he notes. It took time to find channels that could co-exist, go through the licensing process and even start all over again when a frequency didn t work or was not approved for use.
All on Board
We wanted to create a system they would want to move to because of merit, says Condry of the nine counties in the MRGDC. We re not forcing anyone. That s why we got 100-percent support.
Achieving consensus was the first major hurdle to overcome. At the MRGDC administrative level sits all nine county judges and mayors of the county seats, who were not apprehensive, but encouraged about such a proposal for COG-wide communications capabilities.
Establishing consensus is the critical piece, agrees Simons. And vendors being able to choose what radios to buy was a part of obtaining that consensus. The selection of what radio law enforcement uses is almost like a religion, he adds. The capability is identified and whatever vendor can support that can be a player.
In addition to consensus from the judges and mayors, it was necessary to have approval from the public safety community. During the TIP, a practitioner council was formed to review the technology, the process and offer suggestions to the council.
With consensus comes the acknowledgement that a single-channel solution is not the answer. A lot of people s impression of interoperability is We all need to talk to each other at the same time on the same channel, says Simons. Once you get more than so many users on a frequency, it doesn t work. With this solution being layered, and people talking where they belong, staying in their lane, it will work. But the governance issues have to be resolved.
VHF vs. 800 MHz
Probably the most common question Simons and Condry receive is: Why VHF and not 800 MHz? According to Simons, the answer will remain the same. You use the spectrum that s appropriate for the mission. For the MRGDC s mission, it was VHF, but with digital trunking technology.
To cover the same geographic area with 800 MHz would take a lot more towers, says Condry. The legacy towers were already set up to cover a lot of the terrain we needed to. He looked at the towers that could be utilized and didn t need to build new sites, saving a lot of money, but increasing interoperability with new trunking capabilities.
The benefit is the communication capabilities responders have with all kinds of systems, including 700 and 800 MHz. The city of Austin uses 800 MHz radios because of the close proximity of towers and centralized population. MRGDC has partnered with the city, and a channel on their radios can now talk to Austin s responders. Our view of the communications issue is we re building a network, Simons adds. Now, there are many different approaches into that network, but we want to build a strong, robust network along the border that allows any agency to use the appropriate tool from the box that fits them.
Condry adds to this sentiment, saying, The 800 MHz works fine for a metropolitan area; the VHF for rural. So, I just don t see any way around having two systems, but they can be patched together. I can take my VHF walkie-talkie sitting right here on my desk and talk to someone in Austin. With the technology we have today, it s no issue to tie these systems together.
Some agencies in California are still using the low-band technology, Simons says, but not because it s antique or a throw-back, but the best bandwidth for their situation. I think because technology has moved to the IP-age, it s allowed us to select the equipment appropriate for each jurisdiction and still talk with the surrounding agencies.
In Val Verde County alone, there are five tower sites that support the new VHF trunking capability. With 800 MHz, 21 towers would have been needed to cover the same 3,600 square miles, says Simons. Many people, he notes, equate only 800 MHz with efficiency. It s just a piece of spectrum, he explains. Some of the 800 systems are the old-style trunking that doesn t provide autonomous roam.
Val Verde then took a look at another option - satellite communication. However, the problem with satellite, he continues, is the latency. If we re under fire, and you can t see my mouth, all you can do is hear radio. With four seconds of latency, I might say Don t shoot! and you may not get the whole message and hear Shoot!
Tomorrow s TIP
The future of the TIP lies in a common records management and data sharing among agencies in the MRGDC. Officers will be able to share without limits, but also protect the data they feel is proprietary.
In the meantime, public safety is much safer on the road and able to work in a way many have hoped for. Across the plains of Texas, the Texan horizon seems a lot smaller when the distance between neighbors is connected with a good radio system.
Regional Homeland Security in Texas
Texas is taking a regional approach to homeland security. In the state’s 24 Councils of Government (COGs), initiatives are in full-force to provide interoperability for all first responders. Millions of dollars of grants, donations and other money sources have been pumped into the jurisdictions’ plans for complete communication. Here are just a few examples of what is being done:
1. The Ark-Tex COG has used funds to purchase VHF radios for the Texarkana region, so responders there can communicate with others in the region using VHF. Texarkana is currently on the 800 MHz trunked system. Ark-Tex has also purchased 14 ACU 1000 communication systems, which will allow interoperability with all first responders in the region and eliminate dependence on any one frequency.
2. The Capital Area COG has developed a mobile stand-alone radio system, which can respond regionally. Studies have been done in all 10 counties of the COG, assessing status, issues and recommendations of communication capabilities.
3. In the Central Texas COG, a regional interoperable communications system also has been developed. The COG partnered with Dailey-Wells to develop a radio system that builds on the existing systems and allows communication through an electronic patching project. By pooling financial grants, the local governments have been able to get this new capability implemented.
4. The Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council has switched to an 800 MHz system, aided by the purchased of Project 25-compliant equipment.
5. The U.S. Department of Justice has initiated a project in the North Central Texas COG to provide interoperability in Tarrant and Dallas counties and cities of Fort Worth and Dallas.