Data network company Cisco Systems Inc. on Monday announced a system that links the radio networks of police, fire and other public agencies, allowing these first responders to communicate with each other without overhauling their systems.
Hospitals, transportation companies and other businesses that use different communications systems would also be able to speak directly to each other without having to upgrade or buy new networks and handsets, Cisco said.
The technology is a combination of hardware and software that hooks into an organization's radio communications system and then converts two-way radio signals into digital packets that are sent across networks, said Cisco, the largest maker of gear for directing traffic over the Internet.
Several companies are exploring the use of existing Internet networks to make radio signals intelligible to different types of handsets, including Motorola Inc. and Raytheon Corp.'s JPS unit.
Cisco's technology, known as Internet Protocol Interoperability and Collaboration Systems, or IPICS, attempts to address a long-standing problem in the nation's public safety systems.
The U.S. Congress in 2003 appropriated more than $150 million for local and state governments to connect law enforcement and public safety networks, but progress has been slow.
The government's decision to support increased interoperability between radio systems stemmed in part from the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. On the day of the attacks, some police, fire and rescue units were unable to coordinate quickly because their radio systems could not communicate with each other.
"One of the lessons of 9/11 and (Hurricane) Katrina was 'communication, communication, communication," said Mufi Hannemann, mayor of Honolulu, Hawaii, which is testing the system. "We don't want to have to say 'should have, could have, would have.'"
There are some 70,000 independent public safety agencies in the United States, and most of them built networks that were never designed to communicate with each other, said John Powell, a consultant to the Homeland Security and Justice departments on radio interoperability.
"It remains a huge problem." he said. "If the Los Angeles River is filled with water, and you have a policeman on one side and a fire department truck on the other side, to coordinate operations they have to call dispatchers and dispatchers have to relay messages."
Cisco plans to make its service available in the United States in about six months, said Senior Vice President Charlie Giancarlo. He declined to say how much the company will charge for the service until it becomes commercially available.
The company also plans to announce the service on Nov. 15 in Europe, where it is undergoing early field tests at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands, as well as at KLM and the Royal Netherlands Army, Reuters reported.