The Interoperability Evolution: A New Road Map

Speaking at the Tactical Interoperable Communications Conference in Washington, DC Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Monday, May 8th noted: "I'm going to tell you that the biggest barrier to interoperability is not technology. Here is a simple fact. The equipment and technology that is required to be interoperable at this very moment exists today. I have seen it. Most of you have seen it. Anybody who says we don't have the technological ability to be interoperable at this very moment is simply wrong. And we can actually bring in the stuff and show you. You can plug into it. You can speak across jurisdictional lines. Firefighters can talk to law enforcement people. People from communities can talk to one another.

Secretary Chertoff further affirmed, "But the second point, which I think people aren't aware of is, that the challenge we have is not a technological challenge. It has to do with, rather, human beings. It has to do with how do we get people to be able to use this equipment in a way that makes interoperability not just a theoretical possibility, or a technological possibility, but an actual, workable, day-to-day solution."

This is a validation of the statements and ongoing presentations made by SAFECOM, whose Executive Committee includes public safety representatives. SAFECOM has reinforced the fact that the human element in the way of governance and cooperation is the most important and often the most difficult to accomplish.

Why Haven't We Changed?

Progress has been made through the purchase and implementation of interoperable communications technology around the country in the way of new public safety land mobile radio systems, audio gateways, P25, Voice over IP, mobile data systems and other solutions - SO WHAT!

Now that many localities are interoperability enabled - how are they using these enhanced capabilities? Unfortunately, too many agencies operate the same as before the new equipment was implemented. How can this be?

Is the interoperability world round or flat? That question seems to be one that many struggle to understand or resist to change. Let's face it, it is extremely challenging to change decades of day-to-day operations and the philosophy that has supported it. Some first responders (those that believe the interoperability world to be flat) have told me that they do not believe that there is any need to talk beyond their discipline EVER. In other words, police should not talk on fire tactical channels and vice versa. I challenge that mindset to a measured degree. Everyone knows that having everyone from every department talking anytime is chaos BUT there are clearly situations where everyone benefits when multiple agencies are able to communicate (through established policies and procedures) with one another on a common channel WHEN AUTHORIZED - especially when there is a potentially life threatening situation. Unfortunately, the separation of communications for responding agencies to a common incident has prevented critical information from being shared correctly and promptly. This in and of itself can endanger the life safety of first responders. Too many times the communication process flows through a chain of people. For example - during a request for assistance or important message must go from a fire unit to the fire dispatcher to the police dispatcher to the police unit and back through the same path. There have been enough of these life experiences that have demonstrated that the original message changes as it is filtered and interpreted by each person along the chain. The more people that are in the communications chain cause the message to change more significantly.

Obviously, this is a monumental change and there is a natural human resistance to change, especially when policies and procedures have been entrenched in the respective public safety cultures for decades. There is more - there are some very unique communications characteristics in each public safety discipline that must be understood and considered. There are also specific activities and specific radio channels/talk groups that are sensitive and crossing over will remain unacceptable.

What Will It Take?

First, explore the new world with an open mind and consider that the interoperability world is round; if open to this new frontier, many discoveries will unfold and more effective public safety communications will prevail.

One obvious direction is to develop public safety communications along the guidelines of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the National Response Plan (NRP). This will coincide with the required planning already underway and will strengthen every locality's unified command effectiveness at large scale incidents, events and disasters.

The next area that offers significant chance for improvement is in day-to-day public safety operations. This will be the hardest nut to crack. It requires a methodical approach that involves friendship, partnership, patience, sensitivity, training, a willingness to learn and understand from other perspectives and perseverance. The process will take time and discussions may become argumentative but if an eye is focused on the prize - to create the most effective and safe public safety communications environment - it will be one of the greatest accomplishments and newly forged relationships will become unshakable.

A 10 Step Process (when technology enables interoperability)

  1. Make a conscientious effort to meet with other leaders of your community and/or region's public safety community (law enforcement, EMS, fire, emergency managers, etc.) TODAY. If possible, become friends. Friends are more apt to help in a more understanding and responsive way than someone unknown to you. Effective governance is the overarching success to a long term program.
  2. Use the NIMS model to develop a public safety interoperable communications plan. An interoperable communications plan is being required for the larger 75 national identified (UASI) regions and it makes sense for every community to do the same. It makes good sense and it will likely have an impact on future grants.
  3. Establish a steering committee with all the appropriate stakeholders and discuss philosophy and set acceptable boundaries. This should include all of the top public safety department representatives.
  4. Establish a Working Group to develop a draft plan to be reviewed by the Steering Committee
  • a. Begin the process of rethinking how public safety communications could be better and safer in day-to-day operations
  • b. First by thinking about safety
  • c. Consider how other agencies could enter your world - start small
  • d. How your agency might operate better with them
  • e. Review regularly scheduled community events for opportunities
  • i. Sporting events
  • ii. Annual events
  • iii. VIP visitations

Understanding The Factors And Overcoming The Barriers

There are many factors that will influence the scope of interoperability and it will vary from locality to locality. System capacity (radio frequencies/talk groups), call volume, number of personnel, complexity of the system, etc.

In Stephen Covey's book, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Leaders, Covey outlines the importance of interdependence and identifies the required building blocks. This is a particularly important philosophy and a model that may help public safety understand and implement the steps necessary to achieve this lofty interoperability goal.

Stephen Covey's "The Seven Habits Paradigm"

Stephen Covey's 7 Habits Paradigm above breaks the process into 7 logical steps. I will attempt to apply these steps to the public safety interoperability concept. The diagram breaks down the existing condition by maturity levels - Dependence, Independence and Interdependence. Then there are individual stair steps that direct and explain the progress.

  1. Be proactive - begin to think of new ways to interoperate and be willing to change.
  2. Begin with the end in mind - develop long term goals for the new communications to achieve.
  3. Put first things first - address safety issues and build to meet NIMS requirements.
  4. Think win/win - what new procedures will make all agencies more effective.
  5. Seek first to understand then to be understood - listen to others concerns then express your own.
  6. Synergize - create new interdependent and effective interoperable communications.
  7. Sharpen the blade - enjoy the new friendships and partnerships.

This is truly a new beginning for public safety communications. There are many opportunities along this journey but unless there is a diligent initiative to move into new and sometimes uncomfortable discussions, these new opportunities will remain elusive. Disparate public safety agencies have and will continue to evolve in the area of interoperability. While this may take years to assimilate into the collective public safety consciousness, it will eventually make the country much better prepared. For those that acknowledge that the interoperability world is round from the beginning, it will often take undaunted courage similar to that of Lewis and Clark when they explored and mapped the new frontier. This is a new public safety frontier and until it is understood, fully explored and mapped - the silos that have limited communications will remain a barrier.

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