Calling All Radios
Three-quarters of the United States still does not have interoperable communication systems for first responders, according to “Homeland Security in the States: Much Progress, More Work,” released by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices in January 2005,
The lack of interoperable radios has long hampered the work of law enforcement agents, firefighters and emergency medical technicians. Numerous reports reviewing the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks noted the problem. So did reports examining the emergency response to the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The Columbine Review Commission Report indicated that agencies responding to the May 2001 shootings at Columbine High School “were unable to quickly share information requisite for a coordinated response to the catastrophe.”
During the Columbine event, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s department, the lead agency, could not talk on the radio to responding units from other jurisdictions. “The radio systems went to hell in five minutes,” says Mark Hall, a communications unit leader who supports communications for a number of Colorado and federal emergency response agencies. “We had SWAT teams from Denver, Arapahoe County and Jefferson County. The only way we could get them to talk to each other was to put all three SWAT commanders together physically.”
Today, Hall uses a device called an Incident Commander’s Radio Interface (ICRI) to enable responders from different agencies to talk directly to each other during an incident. Made by Communications-Applied Technology Inc., Reston, Va., the 7×10-inch rectangular ICRI box stands 3.5 inches and provides ports for cables from five to 10 incompatible radios. When a message comes in on one radio, the ICRI electronics process the signal and send the message out over the other radios. The 7-pound unit will operate for 30 hours on a handful of AA batteries.
“When a county agency requests an ICRI, we can deploy in 15 minutes to an hour — basically, the travel time,” Hall says. “We just get it there with a technician who sets the system up.”
Depending on interoperability needs, costs range from $3,500 to $8,000 for ICRI field units and $7,500 to $15,000 for rack-mountable models. The technology includes audio delay circuits that permit links to radios operating in a trunked configuration or in a repeater system.
Police in the City of Houston have purchased several ICRI units. “I plug the different radios into the ICRI box, and everyone hears what’s being said in real time,” says Stephen Casko, a lieutenant with the Houston Police Department.
In early May, Casko was patrolling along the southern boundary of Houston when several robbery suspects fled — on foot — from police in a neighboring county into Houston. When Casko got word of the pursuit from his dispatcher, he switched on the ICRI, which he carries in his cruiser, plugged in an 800-system radio that he keeps with him and tuned the unit to the neighboring jurisdiction’s frequency.
Instantly, Casko, as well as the Houston helicopter and canine unit responding to the call, could talk to police from the neighboring jurisdiction. Communications continued until the suspects were apprehended. “An event like this only lasts 15 minutes, so we need full communications right away,” Casko says. “I have an assortment of radios for UHF, VHF and 800 systems. I have programmed each so that I can tune in quickly. I have 80 police departments and 20 fire departments programmed into these radios.”
According to Seth Leyman, president of Communications-Applied Technology, the company developed ICRI after an emergency response exercise in Boston in 2000. “One of the problems was that the various agencies involved could not talk to each other,” he says. “We volunteered to build a prototype.”
Now in its third generation, ICRI is catching on among first responders, who have purchased 350 units around the country so far. “The technology makes life easier for a first responder,” Leyman says.