CoCo Communications unveils new radio interoperability system at Dallas airport

Published 14 September 2006

Revolutionary product brings old and new technologies together; deal with Southwest Airlines first system to incorporate private industry; PDAs coordinate with radio networks to manage communications, watch surveillance video in real time; low price and easy roll-out makes system ideal for cash-strapped and wealthy municipalities alike

Can you hear me now now? Emergency services interoperability is typically understood as allowing fire departments and EMS crews to communicate seamlessly by radio. Indeed, if every metropolitan district had just this capability and no other, we would have to declare all post-9/11 interoperability efforts a success. Seattle, Washington-based CoCo Communications finds such a challenge insulting. Today the company debuts an interoperability system at Dallas Love Field that integrates old fashioned radio with cutting edge software and handheld computing in a manner we believe may serve as a national model.

The main problem with radio interoperability is that municipal agencies have historically bought their systems whole-hog, greedily buying up as much radio as the taxpayers would allow without any coordination with other municipilaties or departments within the same city. When the radios wear out, they simply ask for another bond issue and go through the same process again. This is not only wasteful, it discourages cities from attempting interoperability because of the tremendous costs of swapping out existing radios. A few solutions have been offered, but most are either unwieldy or add little value beyond the base objective of permitting radio communication.

CoCo’s approach begins with the assumption that software is cheaper than hardware. Municipalities should be able to keep their existing radios, many of which cost thousands of dollars to replace. It also takes as given that emergency responders want more than voice communication — they want data sharing and video capabilities as well. Funded by $1 million in grants from DHS and the city of Dallas, the company installed such a state of the art system around Dallas Love Field. Cameras were installed around the airport; so was broadband; handheld computers were distributed; and Southwest Airlines agreed to add its radios to the system, thereby creating the first public-private interoperabilty project.

Here is how it works: while most emergency responders on the ground continue to use the same radios they have for years, commanders and other officials rely on PDAs both to talk and monitor communications. Of course, nobody wants the fire department and EMS on the same radios at all times, so agencies agree upon a number of ‘conferences’ they may join when the situation calls for it. Level one might be for a small emergency requiring just two local commanders to coordinate a medical helicopter evacuation. Level four might require heads of all relevant area agencies to come on line. Those issued PDAs also have video capability allowing them, if they have the proper permission, to tune into to any area of the airport they like. Back at headquarters, moreover, officials can keep an eye on everything via broadband connections.

We like this system for a number of reasons, not the least of which is cost. CoCo relies on a subscription-based business model. It pays for most of the initial installation costs — broadband, cameras, etc. — and for its most basic package charges cities only $67 per month per PDA user (with a twenty-five unit minimum). At $18,000 per year to get out of the interoperability gate, this is a great choice for small municipalities. We are also impressed with the company’s ability to bring together new and old communications systems in a seamless fashion. In this day and age, why shouldn’t commanders have video capability? Three cheers for CoCo for setting a new standard.

-read more at the company Web site