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Virginia Radio Cache aids first responders in quickly establishing emergency communications.
Failure to communicate is not an option for first responders. When the local communication infrastructure is insufficient or damaged, Virginia’s radio caches have aided teams responding to disasters such as a wildfire, a tornado and a hazardous materials accident.
Collectively, the state’s three geographically dispersed caches can deliver P25-compatible systems supporting VHF, UHF and 800 megahertz radio communications to jurisdictions anywhere in the state within four hours. Once two more caches become operational this year, communications can be established in as little as two hours.
“The public wireless infrastructure will never replace the basic need for emergency responders to talk immediately to each other,” says Jim Junkins, director of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Emergency Communications Center, which hosts a radio cache. “It often lacks the priority, coverage and reliability needed to provide what a public safety radio system can deliver. People talking between two radios — that’s always going to be the most reliable and survivable form of communications.”
A radio cache is a set of transceivers not constrained to a physical location; essentially, a “suitcase of equipment,” explains Jeff Webster, an analyst with market researcher Input. Different jurisdictions throughout Virginia have a variety of UHF, VHF or 800MHz public-safety radio systems, and the cache radios have to support all of them.
Interoperability is achieved with a combination of legacy devices and high-end radios — Motorola XTX5000s and XTL5000s, and M/A-COM P7200s and M7200s — that can communicate with each other and be programmed to operate with a particular municipality’s radio system. The cache teams use trailers equipped with rack-mounted repeaters, one for each of the UHF, VHF and 800MHz bands. The trailers also carry six portable repeaters — two per band — enclosed in storm cases.
“Cost is a huge issue,” says Junkins. “These radios must be able to morph as needed to fit with existing systems, so they are not your average public radio. They can cost up to $4,000 a piece, and each team has 300 to 500 of them.”
Some jurisdictions may not know much about their own radio systems or have the details needed to program the cache radios for interoperability. Collecting this kind of information up front should be a key part of the planning process, Junkins recommends. In Virginia, the state interoperability executive committee had recently done a baseline survey of the communications infrastructures in all the jurisdictions, and the cache teams were able to tap the collected information.
Whatever the technological hurdles, the coordination of people is a bigger challenge. The Virginia Radio Cache is the first initiative in the country to test the concept of locally owned and managed teams that are being coordinated through the state.
“You have responders — firefighters, police officers, emergency communications people — who work for the localities and must mesh with the state’s radio cache teams,” Junkins says. “It’s a great concept because you can deliver a lot of value across the state without having a huge buildup of resources at the state level.”
The IT implementation has already proved its worth in a number of emergencies. One of the first was in February 2008, when wildfires threatened homes in a residential area just outside the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region in the northern part of the state. The Fairfax cache was deployed to support the firefighting efforts.
In May, the Chesapeake cache was deployed when tornados swept through Stafford County and Prince William County. Winds up to 160 miles per hour cut a swath of destruction through subdivisions near Interstate 95, and radios from the cache assisted with the cleanup efforts.
In July, the Virginia Radio Cache left the state for the first time when the Harrisonburg-Rockingham team responded to a hazardous-materials call across the border in rural West Virginia. A tractor-trailer carrying a load of expended batteries overturned along a mountainous stretch of highway with no communications coverage, and the Virginia team set up a radio system with a satellite link for Internet and phone access.
And in September, the Fairfax cache traveled to hurricane-wracked Galveston, Texas, to help incident management teams cope with the aftermath.
Junkins doesn’t have solid return on investment figures for the Virginia Radio Cache project because it’s all about leveraging local and statewide capital investments in ways that best protect citizens.
“There is not enough money in Virginia to give emergency responders an all-in-one radio system that would cover all of the metropolitan and rural areas of the state,” he says. “We’ve leveraged about $6 million to date and come up with assets that can be made available to all responders in Virginia in about four hours. We pool assets and create regional teams that can help local responders mitigate emergencies.”
A legacy of Sept. 11, funded by $7 million in Department of Homeland Security grants, the Virginia Radio Cache was modeled on the National Capital Region Radio Cache and is primarily responsible for statewide support. However, it’s also a resource for the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, a congressionally mandated organization focusing on mutual aid among the states.
Jeff Webster, an analyst for market research firm Input, says the radio cache helps Virginia to comply with National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) requirements restricting certain federal funds to agencies that have not just one secure communications system, but also a backup. “That’s especially important in the national capital region,” Webster observes.
The radio cache concept also meshes with the FCC Narrow Band Rules, which require public-safety frequency licensees in higher bands to convert to 12.5 kilohertz operation by 2018. “These rules will help to ensure that agencies who need to make use of these caches will be able to interoperate with them.”