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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What will it take? First, explore the new world with an open mind and consider that the interoperability world is round; if you are 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.

I suggest 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 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 comprised of 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 your day-to-day operations.

b. Be thinking about safety.

c. Consider how other agencies could enter your world – start small.

d. Consider how your agency might operate better with them.

e. Review regularly scheduled community events for opportunities such as sporting events, annual events and VIP visits.

5. Develop a regional public-safety interoperable communications plan which ultimately involves NIMS, NRP, unified command, interoperability, safety AND make sure it interfaces with the statewide interoperability plan if applicable.

6. Train on the plan by conducting Field Training Exercises (FTEs). The plan will accomplish nothing if training does not ensure that everyone understands and is proficient with it.

7. Conduct regional preparedness/response drills and test the plan and utilize the Interoperable Communications Technical Assistance Program’s (ICTAP) evaluation tool, which can be found by visiting

8. Identify deficiencies in the Interoperable Communications Plan (ICP) and modify appropriately. Every plan can be improved.

9. Expand the regional footprint to involve other surrounding communities. The larger the regional aspect, the more resources are immediately available during catastrophic events.

10. Conduct an annual review and encourage the ICP to operationally and technologically evolve. Always keep an eye on new operational ways to use the communications system and to explore technology that can enhance the present system.

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.