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.