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Communications problems and the inability to coordinate with other disciplines and jurisdictions have been recognized as significant operational limitations in every major incident, from the shootings at Columbine High School to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Many reports have been published supporting interoperability; unfortunately, most of them have been largely ignored. That's why I wasn't so sure about what sort of impact the new Top Priority: A Fire Service Guide to Interoperable Communications from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) would have when I first heard about it. I am optimistic.
This handbook builds from the consensus of the National Task Force on Interoperability, integrates SAFECOM's practitioner-driven philosophy and provides real-world steps to make it happen in your community. But the question remains, is it enough?
Written by Bill Pessemier, the IAFC's executive communications systems advisor, Top Priority makes the case directly to the fire service. "Interoperability is viewed by many as desirable, but not essential. This view can no longer be supported," Pessemier told me. "The purpose of the handbook is to provide fire and emergency services with a comprehensive understanding of interoperability. This understanding, in turn, can form the foundation for increasing the effectiveness of emergency response services and improving the safety of emergency response personnel."
Although written from a fire-service perspective, the handbook can be used by fire departments, emergency medical services, law enforcement agencies and emergency managers. Pessemier's direct experience as the fire chief who responded to the Columbine High School tragedy provides an insightful influence and explains his conviction and persistence in making interoperability real.
Will It Work?
Information is powerful in its ability to change perspectives about difficult issues. Can the information contained in this handbook change the perspective of fire and emergency services regarding the importance and value of interoperability? Can it also change the perspective of those who control local resources so that interoperability becomes a higher priority for local funding? If we are to realize the full potential of interoperability, every public safety agency must decide to make interoperability a higher priority, and then establish an action plan to achieve it. This handbook can help the fire service maximize interoperability based on local and regional resources, practices and needs.
IAFC announced the handbook to its members May 1, but posted it on its website in mid-March. In the first month it was on the web, almost 2,000 fire officers checked it out. The handbook provides a common operational definition of interoperability, discusses the foundation for interoperable communications, and provides direction to establish interoperability between and among public safety services, including fire, emergency medical and law enforcement organizations.
Pessemier's common-sense approach may be what we need to get people to act. He understands our culture. He's been the incident commander when communications worked and didn't work. He lays out specific steps to make it happen for departments that have never considered the process (establish a regional interoperability planning group including at a minimum: fire law enforcement, emergency medical services and emergency management) to those of us who think we've got a pretty good interoperable communications system (measure your interoperability communications using SAFECOM's Interoperability Continuum and execute communication training exercises to see the forest from the trees).
Think Operations And Technology