Thursday, August 28, 2014

Found on ebay

At Monday's city council meeting, I was explaining some of the vulnerabilities of our aging radio system, which was born in 1987. We have a number of components that are no longer manufactured, are now obsolete, but are still important to our system. They have names like IEA, GETC and IMC, but the one I choose as my example for the city council was the site manager, a computer.

Public safety radio systems have used computers to control major functions for decades now, and the site manager is one of several our system uses. The site manager controls various functions, chief among which is access: it decides which radios are able to operate on the system, and excludes those that are not authorized.

Our site manager is a DEC MicroVAX 3100-90. This model was released in 1993, the same year Sleepless in Seattle was released. It was installed in 1997, replacing an earlier VAX model. The manufacturer, DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) folded when it was acquired by Compaq in 1998, which also went away, acquired by Hewlett Packard in 2002.

The MicroVAX 3100-90 has a 72 MHz processor. My iPhone has a 1.3 GHz processor. Thus the processor in my phone is 18 times faster than the site manager. The MicroVAX has 128 MB of memory, compared to 1 GB for my phone. If the site manager were to fail, we would be scrambling to find a replacement. Could we quickly find a hardware platform upon which we could install the operating system and application software to take over the function?

During my testimony Monday, I told the council members that while they had been debating other issues on the agenda, I found a DEC MicroVAX 3100 for sale on eBay for $74.95. I wasn't joking. It was in the vintage computer section. My point was emphasize that we have stretched some of our public safety radio infrastructure a long, long way.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Picture this

Sometimes a picture makes a point more succinctly than several paragraphs of text, or several minutes of speech. Last night the City Council was discussing a proposed bond issue to replace our public safety radio system and to spread our existing  fire & rescue resources out to four new stations in better locations. I was trying to inform the city council of the benefit or relocating the fire & rescue resources. Essentially, the bigger footprint reduces the number of address outside our reach in four minutes by 66%.

Pink polygons are the current four minute travel time coverage, and the new coverage area after we move to the four new locations. Dark gray background is the current city limits. Yellow dots are the 9,783 addresses inside the city, but more than four minutes from a station. This is a nice use for an animated .gif, even though the argument failed to carry the day.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Not like a carton of cottage cheese

Why do we need to update the radio system? What will happen if we don't? These are valid questions. It's a pretty big expense, after all--probably more than an elementary school, but less than a middle school. Experience with prior radio systems, beginning in 1933 (see page 9) suggests that the life span is around 25 years, and the core of the current system dates to the late 1980's.

It is not like a carton of cottage cheese, however--it doesn't have an expiration date, and you probably won't open the lid tomorrow and be tipped off by a bad odor. The current system (EDACS) is no longer sold or manufactured, and support is ending soon. It might keep working just fine for quite some time, but with every passing week, we are increasingly susceptible to failures, and it will become more and more difficult to recover from those quickly.

Think of it as a 1989 Honda Accord. It's 25 years old, it has 272,313 miles on the odometer. It has had regular maintenance such as oil changes, tune ups, and filters. It has been in the shop twice for body work following fender-benders. It had a leaky head gasket replaced on warranty in 1992, a valve job sometime during the Clinton administration. It's had a new exhaust system, alternator, struts and shocks, ball joints, two timing belts, and few batteries as and several sets of tires over the past couple of decades. Thanks to regular wax jobs, a garage, and some seat covers from JC Whitney, it doesn't look bad at all. I't has been a reliable and economical car, and it still gets you to work every day.

The old Honda is a perfectly good grocery getter, but would you really want to take it on a drive to California in order to deliver a kidney in the cooler? Might get there just fine, but a cylinder head, camshaft, piston, or transmission failure lurks at every turn, and you won't be able to stop at the local Jiffy Lube to get that replaced.

From the time we get the green light to move a radio project forward, we could be a couple years from flipping the switch. It will take a few months to develop the specifications and draft the request for proposals, a few months to solicit and evaluate responses from vendors, a couple of months to develop and get approval for a contract, several months to design and engineer the system, a few months to install the infrastructure, a couple months to train personnel and execute the transition. If we got cracking now, we might have this all accomplished by 2017...or so.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Radio communications critical

The single most important piece of equipment a police officer carries is his or her radio. It connects the officer to fellow officers, to the dispatch center, and ultimately to the citizens. Radio communications is also critical in fire & rescue work. This is how firefighters and paramedics communicate with one another, with commanders, with hospitals, and with dispatchers. The radio is almost exclusively the path by which 911 calls are dispatched to personnel in the field. Without radio communications, policing, fire fighting, and emergency medical services would revert to the late 1800s, when the call box was state of the art.

Because a public safety radio system is so important, I view it as a critical piece of municipal infrastructure, without which life in cities would be considerably different and more difficult. We generally understand that a water distribution system, sanitary sewers, electrical utilities, and roadways are vital infrastructure. Add to that list the public safety communications system.

There are around 3,000 radios on our system, dominated by the Lincoln Police Department and Lincoln Fire & Rescue, but including several other public safety agencies, such as the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office, University of Nebraska Police Department, Airport Authority Police, Lancaster County Emergency Management, Air National Guard Fire & Rescue, Nebraska State Patrol, and Lancaster County Corrections Department. Other users include the Lincoln Public Works Department, Health Department, Parks and Recreation Department, our local hospitals, and Lincoln Public Schools. About 85% of the actual usage comes from the public safety agencies, and LPD alone accounts for over half of the system usage. Millions of times every year, our police officers and firefighters are mashing the push-to-talk button on a microphone or handheld.

Our radio system, much of which dates to the late 1980s, has reached the end of its life. The technology has moved on, and EDACS trunked radio systems are no longer manufactured or sold. Vendor support for many components has ended. While some bits and pieces are still serviceable, many of the core components are on borrowed time. It has been an excellent system, and has served us very well. It still does, for the moment, but with each passing day, we grow more susceptible to failures from which recovery will be more and more difficult. The time has come to modernize.

Like any major infrastructure project, this one will require a considerable expenditure--somewhere near $20 million. That's more than an elementary school, but less than a middle school. We will need to do this about four times every century. This will be the second during my career, as I was involved when our 4-channel General Electric UHF radio system was replaced by EDACS. Now, I hope to be involved in the next transition to a P25 trunked public safety radio system. It is my highest priority for public safety in Lincoln. Mayor Beutler has asked our city council to consider a resolution to place a bond issue on the ballot this November, so the citizens of Lincoln can decide whether this is a project they can support.

It is important to realize that a radio system is much more than the radios, just as a cellular telephone network is much more than your cellphone. The guts of the network are things you never see and barely know about, but without which your phone or radio is merely an expensive brick: towers and equipment buildings, microwave links, site controllers, transmitters, fiber optic connections, cabling, antennae, the computer hardware and software that manages system, uninterrupted power supplies and back up generators, and much more. We hope to reuse as much of the equipment and facilities as is practicable, in order to keep cost down.

In this day and age, we take for granted that we can grab our cellphone, call 911, and engage an emergency response from law enforcement, fire, or EMS quickly and reliably. Fulfilling this expectation requires investing in the infrastructure that makes this possible.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Let the voters decide

Mayor Beutler has decided to ask the City Council to place a $29.5 million dollar bond issue before the voters this fall, to fund replacement/modernization of our public safety 911 radio system, and the first phase of the fire station optimization plan.

I've described the fire station plan, and the joint police /fire station in previous posts, and next week, I will explain the radio system issue we need to deal with.

The dollar amount of this proposed bond issue is nothing to snarf at, but to put this in perspective, it falls somewhere between the cost of an elementary school and a middle school, and Lincoln has one of each in the pipeline.

A public safety bond issue will let the voters decide whether they believe these projects are a worthwhile investment for Lincoln's future.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Week gone by

Hectic stuff has kept me from my blog for several days, but here's a few things I'm thinking about this week. I'll just consider this four posts in one.

Once again, a residential fire that displaces many, puts the residents and firefighters at risk, and results in major property damage proves to be the result of careless smoking. This is getting old, and I haven't even noted all of these cases on my blog. I continue to believe that one of the significant factors in the declining rate of residential fires per capita in the United States is the smoking rates, which demonstrate a very similar trend.

I'm teaching police recruits this week in the academy, my standard course on information resources. This is a class of six; three men and three women. They have interesting and diverse backgrounds and experiences. My time with new firefighters, dispatchers, and police officers is always enjoyable to me. I had to take a phone call during class, about the upcoming appearance in our little town of Skrillex. The recruits were all about to bust a gut listening to my end of the conversation, as I attempted to pronounce the name. After the call ended I informed them that I am even worse at country western artists that I am at electronica/dubstep (whatever that means.)

This week's tragic fatal crash involving a motorcycle is the fourth this year. It is so sad to have a young person taken from this earth as life is just unfolding. What more can we do to reduce such collisions, arising when a vehicle executes a left turn in front of an oncoming motorcycle? A motorcycle involved in a right angle collision always loses, as did I at 24th & Holdrege on my police Harley Davidson 39 years ago, luckily with injuries that were not life-threatening.

The angst of Lincoln's Yazidis was evident on this week. Just a couple of days after the 9/11, a contingent of leaders in Lincoln's small Yazidi community came to see me, to explain that although they were from Iraq, they were not terrorists. It was quite moving, as they explained some of the history of repression their culture and religion has endured. I did some research and reading afterwards, and had a better understanding of their anxiety about whether they could be caught up in a backlash of anger arising from acts they had no responsibility for whatsoever.