Interoperability: A new challenge for public works

Diane Linderman, P.E.
Director of Public Works
City of Richmond, Virginia
Member, APWA Government Affairs Committee

Before September 11, 2001, interoperability of emergency communication systems was a goal many cities and communities aspired to, but few had it on their top ten list. Except for the City of Richmond, Virginia. And, with the leadership of the Department of Public Works, the city is now interoperable with two adjacent counties, making it one of the first interoperable regions in the nation.

The City of Richmond and the neighboring Counties of Henrico and Chesterfield began their quest in 1996, and had fully interconnected and interoperational 800 MHz emergency communications systems by July 2001, some three months before the most devastating terrorist attack on American soil. And, Richmond's Department of Public Works was not only a leader in the development of the project, but remains to this day as the manager and operator of the city's emergency communications system for all agencies and departments, both public safety and non-public safety.

The project
In 1997, then-Deputy City Manager Connie Bawcum designated Frederick Hughes, Deputy Director of Public Works, to direct Richmond's project to replace an obsolete radio system and to relocate the 30-year-old emergency communications center. Bawcum recalls the 800 megahertz project as " of the best and most rewarding ventures I have been associated with. And [Fred] and the other folks that worked on the project deserve all the credit for bringing a very tough, complicated project to successful completion. The time had come to update our emergency response system, and the Public Works Department was the logical choice to lead that effort."

In 1998, the City of Richmond, the County of Chesterfield, and the County of Henrico signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to enhance the level of public safety by optimizing interjurisdictional wireless communications for the three localities. Richmond DPW's Hughes, along with two appointed representatives from Chesterfield and Henrico Counties, were charged to achieve four primary goals: to improve interjurisdictional communications, to deploy their resources efficiently, to expand their radio coverage area, and to provide system redundancy.

To achieve that end, the three representatives formed the Capital Region Communications Steering Committee and began meeting monthly to discuss specifications for the vendor contracts, issues regarding the interjurisdictional communications capabilities, and how to deploy their resources most efficiently. Additionally, the City of Richmond and Chesterfield County worked closely with Henrico County to develop and build comparable 911 call centers. Henrico was the first county to complete construction of its call center in September 1999.

The result: Interoperability
All three localities now have state-of-the-art call centers with identical communications software that allows them to operate independently and autonomously until emergency responses require combined operations. The call centers can patch different talk groups together and can isolate them as appropriate or as needed.

Richmond's center has a console dedicated to public works and related activities with talk groups assigned specifically to refuse collection, street cleaning, traffic engineering, street maintenance, and floodwall operations. Police or fire can contact the center and be patched to the DPW for direct communication or for assistance. "If there is an emergency and police or fire needs equipment, barricades, or DPW personnel, they can be connected with us directly and we can respond immediately," said Hughes. "And, this capability includes our neighboring jurisdictions. I believe that Richmond is unique in that ability."

To achieve such comprehensive coverage, the participants replaced all of the old equipment—radios included—with the latest technologies. The Department of Public Works in Richmond trained over 1,000 city employees on the use of the new radios. That number does not include Fire, Police, Sheriff, and Schools. The City Radio Shop, a division of Public Works, continues to train all personnel new to radio system operation. Hughes remarked with pride that, "Although we hired an outside contractor to perform the actual installation of the equipment in city vehicles and stationary locations, our Radio Shop trained and trains all of the new employees. The Radio Shop even developed a short video as a training aid."

In the event of an extreme emergency all of the city's responders can be patched together into a city-wide talk group allowing everyone to communicate directly. And, when necessary, responders can be redirected to region-wide talk groups common to the city and the adjoining counties. The city's system includes all city departments that have radios: Public Works, Public Utilities, Police, Fire, EMS, Sheriff, Schools, Transportation and Security, Recreation and Parks, among all of the other departments. The system has also expanded to allow inclusion of the police departments of Virginia Commonwealth University and the Virginia State Capitol. The city has 3,600 mobile and portable radios that can be regrouped as needed.

Each user department or agency has a designated representative to a Shareholders Committee chaired by DPW System Manager Norman Johnson. The committee meets quarterly to consider system needs and logistics as well as operational issues and policies. Policies addressing everything from lost or stolen radios to encryption of secure channels are developed both at the regional level and at the city level.

The entire regional project cost approximately $81.6 million, which paid for three new 911 call centers, 19 radio communication towers, resources, software and communications equipment that allow 7,200 subscribers to communicate seamlessly in an emergency. "The radio system handles approximately 18,500 calls per day just for the City of Richmond," said Johnson of the Public Works Department. "During the first 24-hour period of Hurricane Isabel we had over 32,000 radio communications with no busy signals and no service losses."

The involvement of the Public Works Department in the original project provided advantages for the city immediately. Because public works is the agency traditionally responsible for the management of large capital projects, it met the challenge of this complicated and technologically-advanced project. The DPW was also a neutral arbiter. Even though the Police and Fire Departments might have led the project, the City Manager wanted a neutral agency to maintain and operate the system and to avoid interjurisdictional battles while assuring a broad array of representation. "The Public Works Department was very familiar with the non-public safety responders and approached the project with a very inclusive method," says Fred Hughes. "We involved everyone who could be party to a response, to ensure assistance to police and fire to the fullest extent practicable."

Terrorist response
On October 19, 2002, shots rang out at the Ponderosa Steakhouse in Ashland, Virginia, approximately 15 miles north of Richmond. A 37-year-old man was shot by the Beltway snipers that terrorized the citizens in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia from the beginning of October to their capture at a Maryland rest stop on October 24. The interoperability project immediately paid off. Officials in Henrico County linked adjacent Hanover County with the City of Richmond and Henrico and Chesterfield Counties. Interoperable radios were given to police officials in Hanover County and to members of the Sniper Task Force investigating and pursuing the suspects.

"The new system has dramatically improved immediate access to an available radio channel for all users, removed dead spots in radio coverage, and eliminated the inability of responders to communicate across organizational and jurisdictional lines," said Hughes. "Our next step is interconnectivity with agencies such as the Virginia State Police and with some of our more remote neighboring counties to augment current security and anti-terrorist initiatives." 

Diane Linderman, P.E., was one of APWA's Top Ten Public Works Leaders of the Year in 2003. She can be reached at (804) 646-6430 or at APWA lifetime member Frederick Hughes, Deputy Director of Public Works, City of Richmond, contributed to this article.