Interoperability Without Technology

Over the last several months, I have been working on the subject of interoperability for the Secure Virginia initiative. As a result, I will be taking an in-depth look at interoperability. The series will discuss the various aspects of interoperability and take a look at the various types of wireless interoperability solutions available to emergency service organizations.

Since 9/11, almost every group, organization and/or manufacturer has focused on interoperability from the wireless communications point of view. Technology solutions are evolving every day to help solve interoperability. Although a strong technology advocate for the fire service, I do not lose sight of reality and practical solutions that technology cannot solve.

While working on the Secure Virginia 'First Responder Interoperability Working Group', I realized that even in the absence of technology, interoperability was and has been within our grasp all along. That's right, without millions of dollars and implementation of new technology solutions; the opportunity for interoperability has been in our midst. Before going too far, don't misunderstand. Technology solutions are drastically needed to improve communications for emergency service organizations. In my analysis, I know that even with the best radios that can communicate beyond all limitations and radio spectrum constraints, interoperability cannot be achieved without being managed. The answer for interoperability in the short term, here and now is unified command. As I re-evaluated interoperability, I could hear the words of Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini's many lectures, "Command and Control and Unified Command."

Interoperability in and of itself is effective communications between those agencies that need to communicate. Successful and safe mitigation of any significant emergency incident requires interoperable communications. In the short term, that can be established by unified command. If the answer is so simple, why has it been so obscure and seemingly out of reach? At the World Trade Center, it was reported in several news stories that NYPD knew and transmitted information to their personnel about the imminent 2nd tower collapse; yet FDNY personnel were not informed. In a unified command setting, critical information would be heard simultaneously by all of the agencies represented. Without the first piece of new technology, communication would be achieved between all of the core departments - UNIFIED COMMAND.

Why then is unified command so elusive in many instances? I believe that there are several barriers that are responsible for the failure to establish unified command. First, there are institutional differences within first responders. While the fire service has largely accepted and implemented incident command through local and national initiatives, the same is not true in other disciplines. A number of law enforcement representatives that I have spoken with have explained that it is largely due to the types of incidents that they receive. Police incidents are largely single patrol officer responses and are often follow-up investigations from a crime and that incident command is not necessary. In contrast, almost every call for the fire service is an 'occurring' event and is not over until some type of action is taken to mitigate the hazard.

Another reason for resistance to unified command is the misconception that an agency must give up command and control of its tactical operations. Unified command means that there is a coordinated effort between first responders toward the specific incident at hand. It does not mean that police tell firefighters what to do or that firefighters tell police what to do. Depending on the type of event the lead agency will differ. During a hostage situation, police will be the lead agency; a hazardous materials incident, fire would be the lead agency.

What every agency has learned post 9/11 is how dependent they are upon one another to successfully respond to catastrophic events or large-scale operations. A terrorist attack, a natural disaster, a sniper attack and large-scale operations require every agency to work as a well-choreographed team. Anything less is unacceptable.

As a result of the Secure Virginia initiative, the Secure Virginia panel recommended to Governor Warner that the National Interagency Incident Management System (NIIMS) be accepted as the standard for incident management for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Other states such as Florida, Alaska, New York and California have already chosen NIIMS as the incident management standard.

Before any true interoperability can be achieved, incident management must be addressed. The first focus and short-term must address unified command. This can be achieved with very little effort, training or money. It will also prepare agencies for successful interoperable communications as well.

True interoperability requires a comprehensive strategy that combines wireless interoperability, common language/terminology, unified command, joint training/drills, standard operation procedures/guides, radio discipline, etc."

Technology and communications equipment alone cannot achieve a true level of interoperability. Interdepartmental communications without the appropriate incident management has and will often result in chaos.

The next article will begin the individual review of various interoperable wireless communication solutions. If you have an interoperable solution that you would like reviewed for the article, please send your comments to