'We need people who understand radio and computer needs and are able to bridge the two. Right now we're looking for hybrid employees, since the hardest thing to do is find somebody that understands both worlds.'

By Chandler Harris | July 2008

After 9/11 the need for first responders to seamlessly communicate with other systems within multiple jurisdictions became a national priority. After Hurricane Katrina further exposed the need for such capabilities, the Department of Homeland Security identified such "interoperable communications" as one of the nation's highest priorities.

Since 2001, grants for interoperable communications projects have surged as federal, state, and local municipalities have updated their communications networks. In 2007, the Public Safety Interoperable Communications (PSIC) grant program awarded $968,385,000 nationwide to fund interoperable communications projects, while Homeland Security and the Department of Justice have added hundreds of millions of dollars more.

All of this has meant strong growth for the interoperable communications industry. Between 2008 and 2012, the overall market in the U.S. and European Union will reach an estimated $73 billion, according to the Homeland Security Research Corporation. That's a compound annual growth of 18.6 percent, which makes interoperable communications one of the fastest growing sectors in homeland security.

Not surprisingly, this surge has fueled a need for qualified professionals who can help implement projects in both the private and public sectors.

"These projects need people that understand IT networks, radio networks, and the different protocols needed to integrate different modes of communications," says Doron Pely, vice president of publications for Homeland Security Research Corporation. "Essentially, nobody's getting rid of old networks and buying new ones. They often try to find protocols that will interact and serve as an intermediate between old equipment and the new equipment coming online."

A number of companies offer interoperable communications technology and infrastructure solutions. They include Accenture, Motorola, Unisys, and Bearing Point. IBM, EDS and Northrop concentrate primarily on infrastructure to support wireless interoperable communications for first responders. Northrop Grumman helps federal, state, and local agencies with secure communications, and is finishing an integrated voice-data wireless system that will allow all agencies in Santa Clara County, Calif., to communicate during emergencies. The system is part of the Silicon Valley Regional Interoperability Project (SVRIP).

Skills Needed

The technicians needed for such projects often require a combination of skills and experience, according to David Rauschhuber, police chief of Campbell, Calif., and vice-chair of the SVRIP executive committee. "We need people who understand radio and computer needs and are able to bridge the two," he says. "Right now we're looking for hybrid employees, since the hardest thing to do is find somebody that understands both worlds."

Bearing Point, a technology and management firm that helps SVRIP and similar projects, also seeks people with mixed experience. The company looks for people who combine experience within the first responder community of police, fire, or other emergency response with technical expertise, says Shane Satterlund, managing director of Bearing Point's public services technology services solutions. "They have a nice balance of operational experience as a first responder as well as technical expertise and experience."

RF engineers with a background in wireless communications are also needed, as are engineers experienced with trunked radio, commercial wireless, cellular networks, 4.9 ghz radio solutions, 800 and 700 mhz radio systems, and WiMax, Satterlund says. Once IP protocols become mainstream in the interoperable communications market, Bearing Point will need more Cisco-certified engineers with strong backgrounds in wireless.

Another company, Telecommunications Engineering Associates, which provides management services for public-safety telecommunications systems, looks to hire people with experience in cellular systems, microwave radio, systems integration, and have a professional project manager certificate. Daryl Jones, owner of TEA, says ideal candidates will also have first responder experience.

On the Air

Also, 700 mhz radio systems are expected to become an important part of interoperable communications system, since the 700 mhz spectrum will become more widely available when broadcasters transfer to digital signals in 2009. "Having a good background in radio is beneficial to anybody wanting to work on interoperable communications system, so you have to have an idea about radio systems," explains Anthony Summers, assistant director of the West Baton Rouge, La., Office of Homeland Security, Emergency Preparedness and 911.

The marquee markets for interoperable communications are primarily California (because of wildfires and earthquakes), the Gulf coast and Florida (because of hurricanes and other disasters), and New York (because of the threat of terrorism), says Bearing Point. Yet interoperable communications are being used nationwide for everyday communications.

"It's day-to-day emergency management functions," says Satterlund. "As we continue to define and create the role of the DHS and improve the nation's ability to better respond, there's a lot that goes into making interoperability happen."

Chandler Harris is a business writer in California.