No Public Safety Agency Is an Island

Thomas J. Kuhlmann and Tarquin Morkel provide a case study of a Utah agency that demonstrates interoperability is within reach for smaller agencies.


When It Rains, It Pours! Lessons Learned When Spring Storms Flood Dispatch Center with Calls No Public Safety Agency Is an Island By THOMAS J. KUHLMANN and TARQUIN MORKEL Utah County Agencies Demonstrate Interoperability Is Within Reach for Smaller Agencies As public safety...


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When It Rains, It Pours! Lessons Learned When Spring Storms Flood Dispatch Center with Calls No Public Safety Agency Is an Island By THOMAS J. KUHLMANN and TARQUIN MORKEL Utah County Agencies Demonstrate Interoperability Is Within Reach for Smaller Agencies

As public safety agencies consider the future, many officials see a dire need for greater interagency cooperation. When potential natural disasters, terrorist attacks or other critical incidents strike, individual agencies need to be part of a well-coordinated multi-agency response. Single agencies - especially smaller organizations - may lack the capacity to confront large threats alone.

Agencies must create forums where leaders can discuss mutually important issues and develop joint strategies in order to work together successfully. They must also join together to create interoperable communication networks: infrastructure and technology that lets first responders and other public safety personnel share vital, real-time information during critical incidents and day-to-day operations. Isolated systems, which are "islands of communication," must be integrated into a constantly flowing ocean of cohesive, interoperable networks.

The 9/11 attacks highlighted the importance of interoperability. During these incidents, first responders were unable to exchange critical information due to incompatible communication systems and suffered tragic casualties. Since 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been fostering interoperability at local, state and federal levels. However, the DHS is making limited progress, because agencies continue to struggle with difficult challenges such as scarce funding; retraining; unsuitable technology; divergent or competing strategic visions; and managing difficult organizational transitions. The widely controversial response to Hurricane Katrina, four years after the 9/11 attacks, suggests that most public safety agencies still lack the capability to share crucial information during a crisis.

More evidence of challenges to nationwide interoperability came from SAFECOM in December 2006, when it released the results of its National Interoperability Baseline Survey. The extensive study is a snapshot that reveals enduring barriers to interoperability despite measures of success in certain areas: at least a third of the nation's public safety organizations still do not have any ability to interoperate with local, state and federal agencies - smaller agencies are lagging the furthest behind. The remaining two-thirds have developed varying degrees of interoperability. However, state-to-local - and to a lesser extent local-to-local - interoperability remains weak. The SAFECOM study recognizes that "the nation as a whole falls largely into the early stages (of interoperability)." SAFECOM is a communications program of the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Office for Interoperability and Compatibility (OIC).

Utah Agencies Make Progress

A number of Utah public safety agencies have spent the past three years creating interoperable networks that serve as exemplars. These case studies provide insight that needs to be communicated throughout the public safety community. As agencies share knowledge, we can develop more effective strategies. Agencies within Utah are quickly becoming recognized as pioneers in the interoperability field, because the state created the first truly interoperable, information-sharing network that integrates over 125 local, state and federal organizations.

Utah County, which is the second-largest county in Utah and serves roughly 25% of the state's population, is an important part of this network. The county's information-sharing network lets 22 fire departments and 18 EMS organizations communicate with all agencies and at all levels. Agencies in Utah County share many characteristics with smaller agencies around the nation. Provo Fire & Rescue, for instance, serves a community of 115,000 within a 42-plus-square-mile area, and operates on an annual budget of less than $7 million. Lehi Fire/EMS serves a community of 32,000 with two full-time personnel, a chief and a captain, plus five volunteer officers and 38 volunteer firefighters. Many similar agencies around the U.S. can easily identify with these agencies and apply Utah County's experience in their own environments.

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