Interoperability: One Size Does Not Fit All

For the past decade, when it comes to fire service communications, no term has been discussed more than "interoperability" -- and rightly so. After all, the ability of first responders to talk to one another is of critical importance to civilians and members of the fire service alike. However, with interoperability, as is the case with most strategies, tactics, tools and extinguishing agents, there is no universal solution. Understanding interoperability, therefore, becomes a function of understanding your communications needs.

As the fire service became increasingly involved in providing emergency medical services, the need to talk to others increased. Where the fire department operated both the first-responder vehicles and ambulances, this created an in-house need that often could be solved by a simple change in policies. Both units were often on the same radio system, and might even possess the same frequencies. However, when an outside EMS agency was added to the mix, things became more complicated. There was no common management and often no common radio system. In fact, some private ambulance services had little or no tie-in to the public safety infrastructure, making the ability to talk all the more difficult. And it is this ability to talk that forms the foundation of interoperability.

Perhaps no aspect of interoperability is used more on a daily basis than that of coordinating the activities of a small-scale incident. Often, this involves firefighters being able to provide information on the patient and patient location directly to responding paramedics or EMTs. In the past, these conversations were often relayed through the dispatch center. In fact, in some communities, they still are. However, the interjection of a third party into the mix is time consuming and creates another point of failure. Since telecommunicators' time is also at a premium, anything that can be done to offload activities that can be accomplished directly is of benefit. While these conversations typically involve fire and emergency medical services personnel, law enforcement may also be included, especially at traffic accidents and crime scenes. For some communities, law enforcement is defined in a much broader sense than the local constabulary. Response may dictate coordination with sheriff's departments, park police and state highway patrols.

Providing this level of interoperability can prove problematic. Where public safety users from a single community share a common radio network, this can be as simple as creating coordination channels or establishing talk groups designed for this purpose on trunked radio systems. Mutual aid channels have long been a staple of the fire service, and these too can work with the proper management and planning.

The downside is that this solution normally requires the addition of another mobile radio in all participating units; something that takes both valuable space and money. Because agencies may operate on incompatible bandwidths, modification of their current radios is not an option. Additionally, mobile units pose some limitations on trauma-related messaging, since critical updates may not be known until the crew actually reaches the patient. And, unless the patient is lying in the street, a portable radio is going to be much better suited for this task. In the not too distant future, manufacturers have committed to producing multi-band radios, making this and other forms of interoperability more practical.

While in these limited response scenarios it is necessary for all participants to be able to talk to each other, limitations to total access come into play on calls of a grander scale. After all, a multiple-alarm fire being fought from many fronts requires a significant amount of coordination, but it may not necessitate that every firefighter talk to every other firefighter. Outside of Mayday messages, conversation is likely to be limited to specific activities or sectors. The same can be said for a wildland fire being battled across several hundred acres. Critical information must be disseminated quickly, but much of the nuts-and-bolts transmissions are of no interest to, nor do they affect the safety of, other crews. In fact, where multiple disciplines operate on these emergency scenes, the need for coordination and communications operate on a higher level.

The ability of the incident commander to interact with the ranking officers from other agencies is often of greater interest. To this end, interoperability may be achieved through the means discussed above or simply through face-to-face communications in the command post. Larger incidents may also call for the use of interagency pool radios that can be distributed on the emergency ground or specialized devices designed to patch disparate radios together. While effective here, such solutions are not practical for providing peer-to-peer interoperability on the first-responder level due to their hardware dependency and after-the-fact methods of activation.

Disasters and disaster operations open new avenues of interoperability. It is not uncommon for federal and state agencies to work with municipalities and private contractors during multiple phases of response and recovery. As discussed above, the need for interoperability becomes tightly defined; often restricted to key decision makers. Also, as a matter of course, there is an upper limit to the number of units that can operate on a single channel, regardless of purpose. Therefore, even if it were desirable, it would not be practical to use a single frequency to directly coordinate all units involved.

Of more importance is the adherence of participants to the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and plain-text communications. Additionally, interoperability requirements extend past those units operating at the scene. Companies providing coverage must be able to be dispatched by the host agency and to communicate with one another during response. This can typically be accomplished through provision of local portable radios. Again, this procedure must be in place before it is needed and the source of these radios identified.

Another overlooked area is that of communications center interoperability. Neighboring jurisdictions must be able to routinely exchange information to coordinate both ordinary and extraordinary events. Also, many dispatch facilities support console cross patch functionality that allows for the interconnection of radio channels. While this solution can be applied to a wide variety of interoperability needs, there are limitations. First, the channels to be patched must already be present on the console device; and second, using a patch effectively "ties up" two channels; not necessarily the most effective use of resources during an emergency.

Although our discussion of interoperability has focused predominantly on the methods and uses, no examination would be complete without a look into the planning required. To be properly prepared, agencies must identify a list of potential co-responders, their operational frequencies and methods required to effectively communicate. Like any other pre-fire plans, this should be periodically tested and reviewed to ensure that all participants understand how and when interoperability can be used, and to verify that all resources and contact persons remain valid. By talking to others up front, you will be overcoming the first obstacle to talking to others when the need actually arises, because, sad as it may seem, the lack of interoperability is often more a product of hard feelings than hardware.

Jay Cohen, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Undersecretary for Science and Technology, testified before a House subcommittee that "technology is not the problem with's the culture." While the fire service may jokingly refer to itself as a product of tradition unaffected by progress, many of our outmoded practices and beliefs have thankfully gone the way of the horse-drawn steamer. Yelling into a trumpet may once have been state-of-the-art communications, but in this day and age, the ability to quickly and clearly communicate with other first responders plays a significant role in firefighter safety.

BARRY FUREY, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is director of the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center in North Carolina. During his 35-year public safety career, he has managed 911 centers and served as a volunteer fire officer in three other states. In 2002, Furey chaired the Association of Public-safety Communications Officials (APCO) International conference in Nashville, TN, and in 2005 he received an APCO life membership for his continued work in emergency communications.