Stuff Hits the Fan - SAFE-T and IDPS

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aaron315

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The following is one man's opinion, and not that of any agency, company or anyone else.

Prospective: My point of view in this post is given not as a scanner listener, but as someone who has used authorized radios on both systems during both normal and unusual times of communication need. My point of view in this post does NOT include assuming that I can be in the sub basement of a building and reach the system. My point of view in this post does NOT include how well a non subscriber receiver (such as a scanner) performs when intercepting system traffic. My point of view in this post is given from the prospective of a system user, not an amateur radio operator.

I believe that Safe-T has consistently proven it's near 100% failure rate in time of unusual need. In Hendricks County, the system consistently passes out busy tones when the least bit of a wide area unusual event occurs. For example during an accumulating snowfall which affects part or all of rush hour the system requests exceed capacity for voice channels. Consider that you have State Police, Hendricks County law enforcement, Hen Co Fire, Hen Co EMS, Hen Co Highway, Municipal Highway Departments, fire and ems scene talk groups, and fall over traffic from surrounding counties all competing for a voice channel with high levels of traffic... Bonk Bonk Bonk... It performs well under daily use but fails to meet needs when really needed.

Expand the Safe-T magnifying glass to look at any disaster response incident. During the Ice storm last year several sites up north were in site trunking mode for an extended period of time because their AT&T T1 lines were down. The same problem happened down south recently with the tornado disaster. The system's overall reliance on terrestrial telecommunications circuits is it's Achilles Heel. It is my opinion that the system is under built and oversubscribed in many is not most areas that it is in use. Voice channel density is fine for day to day 'routine' traffic, but far below the ability to meet the need of even a moderate public safety event.

IDPS / MECA performed well during the state fair disaster, several events at the track and other large public events, and the Superbowl. The system has a much higher voice channel density than Safe-T, but also a much larger subscriber base. Multiple towers in a condensed area allow some level of redundancy in addition to the other backups within the system. Microwave and private fiber augment if not replace the telecom circuits of concern for Safe-T and provide redundancy as well. The ability to repartition and reconfigure System I v System II voice channel assignments, and tag priority levels to user groups will help ensure messages can and will be passed in time of need. This system's Achilles Heel is that it is so technical in it's back haul and backbone operations that it can be very intricate to troubleshoot and diagnose issues like those experienced during the PSAP cut over prior to the Superbowl. This system, in my opinion, exceeds needs for day to day communications capacity and I believe will be able to support the need of communications under time of unusual need.

Both systems are subject to catastrophic failure in the event of a disaster affecting a wide area and damaging large amounts of infrastructure. However, even the old analog repeaters (which were fully interoperable BTW) were not resilient to an large earthquake, gargantuan tornado or other event that would bring down towers, etc.

Neither system is perfect by any means, and it is alarming to me that so many agencies are fully dependent on these systems for all of their communications. Even a conventional repeater in a standby site could be a life saver, but no one spends the money to do it; instead relying on the state and Motorola. Caveat emptor.
 

AK9R

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One small point of clarification: It was my understanding that the T1 connection to the New Pekin and Henryville sites is maintained by Frontier Communications, not AT&T.

Any network design problem has to account for the difference between normal load and maximum load. The designers want to design for maximum loading, but the people writing the checks (which, in the case of a public safety system, is us taxpayers) usually won't pay for that kind of over-capacity.

That being the case, the only way to keep users from getting busies when the sh*t hits the fan is to remind users that just because you have thousands of talkgroups available, that doesn't mean you should all try to use different ones at the same time. Unfortunately, trunked systems are promoted as being able to support multiple different user groups with their own, separate communications "channel". Back in the day when the county fire department just had a dispatch channel and one or two fireground channels, this wasn't a problem. But, when you give them a dispatch channel, a single-apparatus fire channel, an EMS channel, an admin channel, and 8-12 ops channels, the users think they should be able to use them. If only the system had that kind of capacity.
 

W9NES

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A simple answer is what K9WG was asking for and that is in "No" IDPS could not talk to FBI swat teams duing the Super Bowl. Safe-t could not talk to IDPS. Indiana State Police Troopers had to use IDPS Radios to talk to others on the IDPS talkgroups.
 

Anon6083

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I'd say Aaron's assessment of the two systems is fair and well-thought. Thanks, Aaron.
 

SCPD

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Not sure where info came form on IDPS MECA doing well during the super bowl but they had several outages and down time this also was reported through several of the news agencies.
 

ml8969

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Actually during the Super Bowl the FBI swat team was able to talk to IMPD using IDPS system. They were assigned their own talk group along with IMPD swat. At times you will hear FBI officers talking on IDPS talkgroups for the IMPD districts. The Indiana State Police troopers and the Excise police Officers that all worked downtown as part of the Super Bowl all had the IDPS channels programmed into their radios well before the Super Bowl events started. The Indiana Capitol Police officers have had the IDPS/MECA talk groups in their radios for some time now.
For normal day to day operations If IMPD or a user of Safe-T need a patch in place to be able to talk to each other it can be done in a matter of moments. If state police get a vehicle chase or foot chase inside Marion County that leaves the interstate or if IMPD gets a car chase/foot chase that gets on the interstate the channels are usually patched together quickly.
 

AK9R

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The Indiana State Police troopers and the Excise police Officers that all worked downtown as part of the Super Bowl all had the IDPS channels programmed into their radios well before the Super Bowl events started.
Not all of them. I was in the Public Safety Compound on Saturday afternoon and saw a steady stream of ISP troopers come in to get IDPS radios because the radios they normally carried didn't have IDPS talkgroups. My assumption was that they normally worked outside of central Indiana so would have no need for IDPS TGs.

My county-issued radios have had both SAFE-T and IDPS talkgroups in them, so I know there's no technical barrier to making this happen in an XTS5000 or APX7000. It's just a matter of programming.
 

K9WG

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Just to clarify my question a bit. I was more thinking of capacity rather then inter-op. I know how cellular phones (basically the same theory as trunking) can get overloaded rather quickly. I was just wondering if the SAFE-t/IDPS systems could handle the amount of users/traffic say if a mile wide tornado struck through the populated areas of Indy (assuming the system it self survived undamaged).
 

AK9R

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The capacity of any trunked radio system to support multiple talk groups all being used simultaneously is equal to the number of voice channels available at the transmitter site minus whatever channels are reserved for system control purposes. Neither IDPS nor SAFE-T are multiplexed systems. One in-use talk group equals one voice channel.
 

evfd1625

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Re safe-t

Just to give an example, on the primary tower for my response area, as a medic and firefighter, our site at Edwardsport, only has 4 voice channels. If we have an incident requiring response of fire, ems, county/rural law, and ISP, we can get busy signals on a motor vehicle collision on a normal day without any extreme circumstances, so take this as you would like.
 

ofd8001

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This might be comparing apples to oranges, but as I understand the SAFE-T system is similar to the Minnesota ARMER system. A number of years ago there was a significant bridge collapse with many responding agencies. The following is a link to the report issued on the performance of the system.

https://dps.mn.gov/divisions/ecn/programs/armer/Documents/I-35W Final Report.pdf

I'm also presuming and hoping that the Indiana system radios are programming with the 8TAC mutual aid conventional frequencies, so that may give additional capabilities.
 

evfd1625

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Yes, our radios have the NPS Call, and TAC channels, as well as 8-Call 90 through 8-Tac 94. However, in our area the repeaters are co-located with the trunked system sites. I imagine they are independent equipment that may continue working when the SAFE-T linking goes down.
 
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DiGiTaLD

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A simple answer is what K9WG was asking for and that is in "No" IDPS could not talk to FBI swat teams duing the Super Bowl. Safe-t could not talk to IDPS. Indiana State Police Troopers had to use IDPS Radios to talk to others on the IDPS talkgroups.
That's nothing more than a programming issue. Almost all MECA-programmed radios (depending on the template) have at least some SAFE-T talkgroups in them, and many ISP radios - at least the ones issued to troops in District 52 - have valid IDs and talkgroups on the MECA (IDPS) system. Its not a fundamental failure of the system, its an issue with inter-agency coordination and programming to be able to talk to each other.

The template in my issued MECA SU is outstanding for SAFE-T. It has every regional and statewide mutual aid talkgroup in the state, as well as pre-rebanding and post-rebanding NPSPAC conventional channels in both repeater and direct configuration. The problem that we run into with MECA SUs also being programmed for operation on SAFE-T is that there are not enough radio IDs on SAFE-T available. Many of the radios are programmed with an invalid ID of 700001 on SAFE-T, allowing them to listen only and roam between sites based on RSSI, but not affiliate and not transmit. That leaves the people assigned those radios NPSPAC as the sole option for intersystem operability.

Back to the original question posed in this thread: can the systems handle a major disaster? It depends. Anything that relies on terrestrial leased lines for connectivity between sites is at the mercy of the terrestrial wireline network. I have seen MECA go into site trunking occasionally - and having a site go into site trunking in a simulcast cell is no way to run a railroad. However, it seems to be a very rare occurrence. MECA is overall a very, very reliable, robust system. Granted, when it gets totally slammed, you can get some busies, but channel availability on the system is generally excellent.

IMHO, SAFE-T is a different story. There are usually enough voice channels per site to handle normal day-to-day traffic with the roaming restrictions that are in place to preserve voice channels at lower capacity sites. When there is a big disaster like the recent tornadoes in Clark County, you are going to have busies. It doesn't even have to be a big disaster. It seems every time some severe thunderstorm activity rolls through my area, the system loads up. Then there is the issue of the wireline backhaul between sites. This seems to be the biggest obstacle to overcome.
 

AK9R

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Anything that relies on terrestrial leased lines for connectivity between sites is at the mercy of the terrestrial wireline network. I have seen MECA go into site trunking occasionally...
The original MECA system used dedicated microwave links for connectivity between the sites. Is that not the case with the current IDPS system?

IMHO, SAFE-T is a different story...When there is a big disaster like the recent tornadoes in Clark County, you are going to have busies. It doesn't even have to be a big disaster.
Heck, a big snow storm can easily tie up a site when ISP, INDOT, and local police and fire all get busy. Makes me wonder if it isn't time to move INDOT and some of the other admin stuff to a different system.
 

kadetklapp

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Heck, a big snow storm can easily tie up a site when ISP, INDOT, and local police and fire all get busy. Makes me wonder if it isn't time to move INDOT and some of the other admin stuff to a different system.
That's just it. IDHS and IPSPC have handed out radios to every single Tom, dick, and harry in the state and now there are no ID's to be had. When every health department in the state has at least one radio, there go at least 92 ID's that could have been used for people who actually need the radio. INDOT and your typical non-users of radios should never have been placed on SAFE-T to begin with, as it was totally unnecessary. INDOT should have just stayed on analog 800 and they could have rebanded it with NPSPAC or any number of state-wide mutual aid talkgroups and been able to communicate if needed.

Then you have programming issues. My SU has had basically the same template since the radio was issued out to the first officer who had it in 2004. I still have analog talkgroups and frequencies in my radio for a system that doesnt' even exist anymore (before we went full Safe-T.) When RA-COM or whoever is contracted to service the radio doesn't bother to update templates you end up with a bunch of redundant channels and useless talkgroups in the radio, such as how mine is.
 

zerobleu

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That's nothing more than a programming issue. Almost all MECA-programmed radios (depending on the template) have at least some SAFE-T talkgroups in them, and many ISP radios - at least the ones issued to troops in District 52 - have valid IDs and talkgroups on the MECA (IDPS) system. Its not a fundamental failure of the system, its an issue with inter-agency coordination and programming to be able to talk to each other.
Even certain Hamilton County EDACS radios have been programmed with MECA (IDPS) systems and talk groups. Those radio's function properly when the units switch systems and if SAFE-T were true P25, those radios would have also been programmed for the SAFE-T systems. As you suggest, the issues lie with training and inter-agency coordination.
 

DiGiTaLD

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Even certain Hamilton County EDACS radios have been programmed with MECA (IDPS) systems and talk groups. Those radio's function properly when the units switch systems and if SAFE-T were true P25, those radios would have also been programmed for the SAFE-T systems. As you suggest, the issues lie with training and inter-agency coordination.
Very good point sir. Yes, the newest EDACS subscriber equipment is also P25 capable, and allows easy interop for Hamilton County users switching to MECA. Unfortunately, it doesn't work the other way around since Hamilton County is still EDACS, and the MECA (and we all still call it MECA) and SAFE-T subscriber equipment (Motorola and sometimes EFJ) won't do EDACS. So that's where NPSPAC comes in, in theory at least. In a real world situation, people will just relay through dispatchers as they always have done and everybody will just stay on their own channel. I think the issue is (and always has been, even with analog conventional so long as everybody was on the same band) that we have the tools, we just don't use them right.

As for INDOT, they are "analog 800" on SAFE-T, save for a few talkgroups that are digital voice. Most of the day to day operational talkgroups are analog. IMHO, they probably could have just stayed on low band, at least until the system went P25 Phase II, which would mean a whole lot more available radio IDs and a more traffic capacity due to TDMA in the Phase II spec. There is still nice new low band equipment available out there that they could have used, and had they used PL or DPL, they could have cut down on or eliminated interference from DX and other sources. It probably would have been much cheaper than buying Motorola subscriber units for their entire fleet.

This business of trying to jam everybody in the state onto a mixed-mode Type II system before the system is built up enough to handle it is a bit foolish. Its a great concept, don't get me wrong, but the infrastructure has to be able to handle it, and individual agency SOPs absolutely must be re-evaluated and changed as necessary to make it actually work as the planners intended. So often, users are just handed a radio and a charger and told "here you go", with no training at all. Most of the time, non-radio people are expected to figure out how to use these extremely capable radios and systems with no formal training whatsoever. Then we wonder why we can't talk, and the answer always seems to be that we need to throw more money at it,

RXR, as for the backhaul between MECA sites, I don't know how they're doing it now. There are microwave antennas, but I am not privy to the system's design details. Even if I was, I wouldn't blab about it on the internet. I'm just a user.
 

KidClerk

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I think the issue that was always overlooked was that this type of system is awesome when it comes to having to talk to the state EOC from a tornado ravaged area like Henryville and some other examples of wide area situations and multi agency operations, but it should have never been intended nor promoted for fire ground communications, water shuttle operations, local spotter activities, etc. Local VHF frequencies/repeaters are still very effective, efficient, reliable, and inexpensive. Plus we've been doing that for 20+ years and no additional training was necessary. It wasn't broke, but we fixed it anyway.

Kyle


Very good point sir. Yes, the newest EDACS subscriber equipment is also P25 capable, and allows easy interop for Hamilton County users switching to MECA. Unfortunately, it doesn't work the other way around since Hamilton County is still EDACS, and the MECA (and we all still call it MECA) and SAFE-T subscriber equipment (Motorola and sometimes EFJ) won't do EDACS. So that's where NPSPAC comes in, in theory at least. In a real world situation, people will just relay through dispatchers as they always have done and everybody will just stay on their own channel. I think the issue is (and always has been, even with analog conventional so long as everybody was on the same band) that we have the tools, we just don't use them right.

As for INDOT, they are "analog 800" on SAFE-T, save for a few talkgroups that are digital voice. Most of the day to day operational talkgroups are analog. IMHO, they probably could have just stayed on low band, at least until the system went P25 Phase II, which would mean a whole lot more available radio IDs and a more traffic capacity due to TDMA in the Phase II spec. There is still nice new low band equipment available out there that they could have used, and had they used PL or DPL, they could have cut down on or eliminated interference from DX and other sources. It probably would have been much cheaper than buying Motorola subscriber units for their entire fleet.

This business of trying to jam everybody in the state onto a mixed-mode Type II system before the system is built up enough to handle it is a bit foolish. Its a great concept, don't get me wrong, but the infrastructure has to be able to handle it, and individual agency SOPs absolutely must be re-evaluated and changed as necessary to make it actually work as the planners intended. So often, users are just handed a radio and a charger and told "here you go", with no training at all. Most of the time, non-radio people are expected to figure out how to use these extremely capable radios and systems with no formal training whatsoever. Then we wonder why we can't talk, and the answer always seems to be that we need to throw more money at it,

RXR, as for the backhaul between MECA sites, I don't know how they're doing it now. There are microwave antennas, but I am not privy to the system's design details. Even if I was, I wouldn't blab about it on the internet. I'm just a user.
 
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