NPSTC Updates Radio Programming Tool, Considers State-Centric Future Version
Tuesday, September 26, 2017 | Comments
Dan Robinson, acting supervisor for field support services for Michigan’s Public Safety Communications System (MPSCS), offers the latest updates on the Programming and Management (PAM) Tool, which helps with the increasingly complicated job of programming two-way radios.

Robinson is a departmental analyst for the MPSCS radio programming unit. He has 30 years of experience in public-safety communications and serves as chair for the Programming and Management (PAM) Tool working group within the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC). He is also a member of the Project 25 (P25) Compliance Assessment Program (CAP) advisory panel (AP) and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International.

Please explain the PAM Tool. The first version of the tool began in 2014 as a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet created to assist with programming different vendor radios in a multivendor radio environment. The tool creates a normalized set of radio programming data field names and translates each data field correctly between manufacturers. The spreadsheet is designed to help minimize errors in manual programming. The tool is not designed to replace a vendor’s programming software but provides a fixed data set to allow vendor development of an import/export function within vendor software.

What is the latest work on the tool? We are finalizing version 7 of the PAM Tool, which will match radio channel labels approved in the most recent version of the National Interoperability Field Operations Guide (NIFOG) manual. There are changes to the carrier squelch settings on certain channels to resolve problems with dual use. On the conventional mandatory page, all low VHF, VHF, UHF and 800 MHz, the receive private line (PL) is 156.7 MHz; there is no carrier squelch per the current NIFOG.

We are discussing the feasibility of creating a state-centric PAM Tool that would include both the nationwide interoperability channels, as well as all authorized statewide interoperability channels. The state would manage this version and control access to it.

In addition, NPSTC added the new 700 MHz air-to-ground channels approved by the FCC. We are working with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science & Technology Directorate (S&T) to post the PAM Tool to DHS websites for better exposure.

How does the tool benefit public safety? Radio programming is becoming increasingly complicated as vendors add more features, which in turn results in additional pages of programming and configuration settings. A programming error can have catastrophic results by preventing a first responder from communicating with another agency in an emergency. Programming errors occur during routine updates or when programming is done at the scene of a major incident.

Has Michigan used the tool? Michigan is assessing how the PAM Tool would work for its constituents. Michigan’s MPSCS has 83,000 radios from several different manufacturers on the system. We had a vested interest in this because we have a radio programming unit with four employees, and that’s all we do. It takes an expert on each vendor’s software, and we have risk involved if that expert is gone. We were hoping the interface would make it more user friendly, but more importantly, would help eliminate human error and require less manual entry. The PAM tool includes conventional information because most interoperability channels are not trunked, and PAM is helpful to all of those radios. Before MPSCS can use it, the PAM Tool needs to include trunking system data because Michigan’s statewide radio network is trunked. This adds more complexity to the design.

What is planned for the future? We are examining how to migrate the features of the PAM Tool into a more secure platform that does not rely on Excel. The desired end state is for radio manufacturers to modify their programming software to allow for import/export of data from other vendors. This requires a standardized data format that all vendors would use. The Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) is actively working on this data exchange format language and hopes to have a proposal ready by the end of the year. An interim solution may be possible or necessary based on the expected timeline for completion of the TIA project and to assess vendor adoption of the concept. In June, TIA elected to make the tool a standard, separate from the Project 25 (P25) standards suit.

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On 10/3/17, Lt. Robert Griffin Chelsea MA Police said:
Excellent idea. It should be mandatory that all radios are capable of accepting standard programming from regional, state and/or federal interoperability committees.

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