Interoperability: An In-Depth Review

Charles Werner tracks down answers to the question, “What is interoperability?” and defines it meaning for the fire-rescue service.


On 9/11, the interoperability problem was born, or so you might have thought. The reality is that the fire service has been struggling with the issue of interoperability for decades. Whether it was interoperability during daily operations or a catastrophic event, the need has always been present...


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On 9/11, the interoperability problem was born, or so you might have thought. The reality is that the fire service has been struggling with the issue of interoperability for decades. Whether it was interoperability during daily operations or a catastrophic event, the need has always been present, yet poorly addressed.

Suddenly, interoperability became the issue of the day and was and is being addressed by people other than the fire service. The focus on interoperability has been influenced by a number of causes. First, the terrorist attacks identified issues and concerns surrounding interoperability and operability by investigative reports and highly publicized by the media. On the interoperability side, it was the highly publicized need for agencies to communicate with one another on a scale never imagined. On the operability side, the issue became in-building coverage and its effect on emergency operations.

Second, millions of dollars of federal grant money have been earmarked (but still not distributed) specifically for interoperable communications equipment. In fact, $180 million was marked for interoperable communications equipment for firefighting and EMS. This creates incentives for manufacturers and vendors to develop and market communications equipment that provides solutions for interoperability.

Third, legislators are now faced with defining "interoperable communications equipment" and developing strategies for the same. What does the term interoperability mean and what are acceptable solutions to achieve it? Additionally, what is the definition of "first responder," since many of the federal grant monies refer to first responders? Now we have the issue of interoperability being pushed by the fire service, law enforcement, EMS agencies, vendors and legislators while being highly publicized by the media. "We must achieve interoperability!"

The question remains, "What IS interoperability?" Nearing the end of September 2002, I found myself discussing these very issues as a member of the Secure Virginia First Responder Interoperability Working Group. This Working Group is one of the most effective groups that I have been involved and in less than six weeks came up with positive observations and recommendations. The group involved members of the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department, Charlottesville Fire Department, Virginia Department of Fire Programs, Virginia State Police, Virginia Department of Emergency Management, Virginia Office of Public Safety and others and is facilitated by Virginia Interoperability Coordinator Twyla Garrett.

I would like to share some of the observations and suggestions that were made by this working group to the Secure Virginia Panel.

Defining "first responder." "Fire, emergency medical personnel, law enforcement and other identified entities who, by specialty or profession, normally arrive first on the scene of an emergency incident to assess or take action to save lives, protect property, and/or mitigate the situation." Please note that the words "normally arrive first" are critical to this definition.

What is interoperability? "The ability for people from different functional areas to communicate effectively at an incident site (tactical) or between jurisdictions or levels of government (strategic)." This does NOT mean the ability for everyone at an incident to be able to talk at will to everyone else. That is the definition of chaos. It does mean those intercommunications that support effective incident management (tactical) and emergency management (strategic) activities that also support continuity of operations and continuity of government functions in emergencies and catastrophic events.

Several questions blur the notion of interoperability. How is interoperability achieved? Is it a human factor, a technology factor or a combination of many factors? I am one of the most outspoken technology advocates in the fire service, but I believe (along with the other members of the working group) that interoperability can be achieved more quickly, more effectively and least expensively by implementing an effective incident/unified management plan.

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