The Interoperability Evolution: A New Road Map

Speaking at the recent Tactical Interoperable Communications Conference in Washington, DC, in May, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff noted, "I’m going to tell you that the biggest barrier to interoperability is not technology. Here is...


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Speaking at the recent Tactical Interoperable Communications Conference in Washington, DC, in May, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff 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."

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. 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 Internet Protocol (VoIP), 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 flat or round? 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 who 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 clearly there are 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, the 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.

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 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.

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