Feds to screen first responder radios for interoperability

First responders are getting help from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Homeland Security Department's Safecom program to assess whether new two-way radio equipment and systems available on the market meet the industry's interoperability standards, known as Project 25 (P25).

The new NIST program, known as the P25 Conformity Assessment Program, will help public safety agencies avoid buying new wireless devices and systems that claim to meet the P25 standards but in fact do not. The program's aim is to prevent incidents in which local police agencies purchase new interoperable radios only to find that the radios are not compatible with other P25 systems

"In recent years there have been many documented complaints from the public safety community regarding P25 equipment not meeting standards. For example, one user with a brand new P25 radio said that he had to make 28 keystrokes on the radio's keypad in order to make a unit-to-unit call," Safecom said in a news release announcing the joint assessment program.

Safecom is the DHS unit dedicated to fostering interoperable communications between first responders. It offers guidance on spending of DHS grant money for that purpose.

Project 25 was developed by the IT and wireless communications industries over the last decade to create common criteria for new wireless public safety communications devices and systems. The goal was to enable the radios, regardless of manufacturer, to communicate seamlessly with one another.

DHS grants for emergency communications systems require that the newly purchased systems be P25-compliant. Yet the only evidence of compliance currently available is from manufacturers' claims. The new NIST program will certify P25 products proven to meet the standards.

The first step of the conformity assessment program will be to establish a third-party certification process for P25 equipment. The third parties will conduct testing by NIST-accredited independent laboratories to evaluate compliance with the P25 standards, the press release stated.

Suppliers whose products pass the test will make formal declarations of P25 conformity that are available to the public, ultimately creating a "Consumer Reports"-type list of P25-compliant equipment, the press release said.

In addition, Safecom officials announced they are working with state and local elected and appointment officials to conduct a National Interoperability Baseline Survey, to be completed within six months.

The assessment will "obtain a statistical baseline measure of public safety communications interoperability." It is intended to help focus interoperability efforts, identify where improvements can be made and direct DHS funding for specific objectives, the press release said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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