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In day-to-day communications and during times of emergency, the fire service and all public safety organizations need interoperable communications capabilities - the ability to communicate within an organization and across geographic, organizational and jurisdictional boundaries. Over and over, catastrophic events demonstrate that even with the best public radio communications systems, a parallel and reliable communications network is critical to the successful management of emergency incidents.
During the sniper attacks in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia last year, the critical need for interoperability was highlighted once again. During the course of the multi-jurisdictional manhunt, Nextel provided more than 550 handsets through its Emergency Response Team (see article on page 98) to local, state and federal law enforcement, command centers and community school systems to facilitate rapid, reliable and interoperable communications.
A powerful illustration of the pivotal role interoperable communications can play in public safety is provided by the story reported by Lieutenant Sean Egan of the District of Columbia Fire Department. During the investigation, Engine 16 was returning from a medic call in the District when it observed a white van matching precisely the description of the sniper suspect vehicle. He first tried calling 911, but the system was overwhelmed with callers and he could not get through. Immediately, he turned to his Nextel phone and, using Direct Connect - the powerful long-range walkie-talkie feature - he contacted his brother, a watch commander with the U.S. Park Police who was working in the Joint Operations Center of the Sniper Task Force.
Egan relayed the information and within minutes law enforcement converged on the vehicle from every direction. Unfortunately, as we all learned, the information linking the white van to the attacks was erroneous. However, the importance of a parallel communications system that can circumvent traditional radio and cellular communications was underscored.
Interoperable and reliable communications, however, are equally as important in day-to-day operations. Like most fire departments, the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department (CFD) uses cellular technology in addition to our land mobile radio communications system. This redundant form of communication repeatedly proves its worth when vital connectivity is needed and other public safety radio communications systems are not the appropriate medium for communication.
Last year, Charlottesville Fire Chief Julian H. Taliaferro (also IAFC treasurer) and I began using Nextel handsets equipped with Nextel Direct Connect. Nextel Direct Connect works much like an 800 trunked two-way radio, but is embedded in the Nextel handset along with other features such as all-digital cellular, text and numeric messaging and data applications.
Today, the CFD has issued Nextel phones for every in-service fire unit, our fire dispatch center, and for every chief officer and fire prevention personnel. In the simplest terms, we have added a secondary or better-described "parallel" 800 trunked radio system without the expensive infrastructure costs. In fact, the only costs incurred for this redundant communications system is the monthly wireless service fees for each handset.
Organic & Unplanned Growth
What has happened in Charlottesville can best be described as "organic and unplanned growth" of an interoperable emergency service community. On a parallel path, the Albemarle County (our neighboring county) Police Department had been testing the Nextel telephones within their department. Captain Crystal Limerick explained that they too found Direct Connect to be an invaluable tool and are expanding their use of Nextel phones. The Albemarle County Fire-Rescue Department, which we serve contractually with automatic mutual aid, also implemented Nextel phones. Now we communicate via Direct Connect for both routine conversations and during emergency operations.