Interoperability: One Size Does Not Fit All

Barry Furey discusses the function of understanding your communications needs.


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...


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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.

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