BAE Systems and communication interoperability

Communications Assembly (VCA), is small enough (8.625” x 8.625” x 2.5”) to be easily mounted inside first responder vehicles. Once installed, the VCA relies on vehicle power.

When another vehicle equipped with a First InterComm VCA arrives at the scene, the system automatically creates a temporary mesh network, an incident-area network (IAN) — which enables first responders using disparate equipment and frequencies (which have been previously configured to the VCA) full communication interoperability. Once tuned to IAN, each device automatically becomes a node in that mesh network.

When a first responder transmits a radio message, the agency’s First InterComm device receives the radio frequency (RF) signal, converts it to a digital signal, and relays it across the mesh network. Every other First InterComm device at the scene (optimally each agency will have its own VCA) then converts the digital message to its designated radio frequency and broadcasts it to its users. First InterComm’s routing algorithms direct transmissions along the optimum route for the best service quality. Each VCA unit comes with Talk Group Control Software that allows the IC to segment out various frequencies to various groups in order to avoid confusion. Thus the IC might decide to allot one segment to police directing traffic and another to firefighters within a building. The system is setup in such a way, however, that as the initial first responders arrive they are channeled into a default talk group allowing instant communications and depending upon the magnitude of the emergency the IC can opt to utilize the software.

First InterComm has been designated by the DHS as an anti-terrorist technology under the Safety Act. It is also endorsed by the National Association of State Fire Marshals as the interoperability solution that it would like to see deployed nationwide. The First InterComm product also possesses the technological foundation to transfer visual data and BAE is presently conducting lab experiments on incorporating that capacity into its product.

The market
First InterComm  is just beginning to enter the market, but it is already generating positive feedback from first responders. According to John C. Woulfe III, past president of the Maine Fire Chiefs Association and current fire chief of Rumford, Maine “The BAE Systems solution dramatically improves the communications capabilities for our fire service and the communities they serve”. Frank Fraitzl, Milford Fire Chief, adds: “The system will allow all Souhegan Region fire departments to talk to each other with the radios we use every day…” Thanks to DHS grants several municipalities in Maine and New Hampshire have acquired First InterComm systems.(4) DHS is a prime source of financial assistance for improving communication interoperability. Between 2003 and 2005, it awarded $2.15 billion to states and localities.

Depending on quantities, each First InterComm system costs from $3,000 to $5,000. According to Greene, this is the least expensive communication interoperability product on the market. Indeed it is affordable when one considers that the price of one Project 25 radio can run as much as $5,000 and needs to be part of a complete Project 25 system (base stations, repeaters and radios) to be effective. The Virginia county of Arlington, for example, is acquiring and implementing a full Project 25 system for $16.8 million. In the case of First InterComm, first responders continue to use their present equipment. One of the ways BAE has kept the price of the First InterComm low is by utilizing commercial off the shelf components to integrate its technology.

An additional cost factor is that the First InterComm allows the incorporation of new technologies — it already supports both P25 radios as well as 700MHz radios. As new radio systems come out, BAE Systems will integrate them into existing — already purchased - First InterComm systems.

Mike Greene says: “we have just started exploring the market” but with an annual U.S. communication interoperability market valued by Greene at $5 billion and an estimated 2.5 million public safety first responders distributed throughout a network of 50,000 local, state and federal agencies, BAE Systems seems ready to make a difference in this field.


1. First Responders — Much Work Remains to improve Communications Interoperability— Report to Congressional Requesters, GAO-07-301 (United States Government Accountability Office, April 2007), p. 4.

2. Press release, “National Baseline Survey Findings Show Significant Levels of Interoperability Across the Nation,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 8 December 2006.

3. Accessed at

4. Quotes and grant info from BAE Systems press releases of 14 September 2007 and 12 December 2007; available from