The Interoperability Evolution: A New Road Map

July 1, 2006

Speaking at the recent Tactical Interoperable Communications Conference in Washington, DC, in May, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff noted, "I’m going to tell you that the biggest barrier to interoperability is not technology. Here is a simple fact. The equipment and technology that is required to be interoperable at this very moment exists today. I have seen it. Most of you have seen it. Anybody who says we don’t have the technological ability to be interoperable at this very moment is simply wrong. And we can actually bring in the stuff and show you. You can plug into it. You can speak across jurisdictional lines. Firefighters can talk to law enforcement people. People from communities can talk to one another."

Chertoff further affirmed, "But the second point, which I think people aren’t aware of, is that the challenge we have is not a technological challenge. It has to do with, rather, human beings. It has to do with how do we get people to be able to use this equipment in a way that makes interoperability not just a theoretical possibility, or a technological possibility, but an actual, workable, day-to-day solution."

This is a validation of the statements and ongoing presentations made by SAFECOM whose Executive Committee includes public-safety representatives. SAFECOM has reinforced the fact that the human element in the way of governance and cooperation is the most important and often the most difficult to accomplish. Progress has been made through the purchase and implementation of interoperable communications technology around the country in the way of new public safety land mobile radio systems, audio gateways, P25, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), mobile data systems and other solutions – so what?

Now that many localities are interoperability enabled, how are they using these enhanced capabilities? Unfortunately, too many agencies operate the same as before the new equipment was implemented. How can this be? Is the interoperability world flat or round? That question seems to be one that many struggle to understand or resist to change. Let’s face it, it is extremely challenging to change decades of day-to-day operations and the philosophy that has supported it. Some first responders (those who believe the interoperability world to be flat) have told me that they do not believe that there is any need to talk beyond their discipline ever. In other words, police should not talk on fire tactical channels and vice versa.

I challenge that mindset to a measured degree. Everyone knows that having everyone from every department talking anytime is chaos, but clearly there are situations where everyone benefits when multiple agencies are able to communicate (through established policies and procedures) with one another on a common channel when authorized – especially when there is a potentially life-threatening situation.

Unfortunately, the separation of communications for responding agencies to a common incident has prevented critical information from being shared correctly and promptly. This in and of itself can endanger the life safety of first responders. Too many times, the communication process flows through a chain of people. For example, during a request for assistance, the important message must go from a fire unit to the fire dispatcher to the police dispatcher to the police unit and back through the same path. There have been enough of these life experiences that have demonstrated that the original message changes as it is filtered and interpreted by each person along the chain.

Obviously, this is a monumental change and there is a natural human resistance to change, especially when policies and procedures have been entrenched in the respective public safety cultures for decades. There is more – there are some unique communications characteristics in each public-safety discipline that must be understood and considered. There are also specific activities and specific radio channels/talk groups that are sensitive and crossing over will remain unacceptable.

What will it take? First, explore the new world with an open mind and consider that the interoperability world is round; if you are open to this new frontier, many discoveries will unfold and more effective public-safety communications will prevail.

One obvious direction is to develop public-safety communications along the guidelines of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the National Response Plan (NRP). This will coincide with the required planning already underway and will strengthen every locality’s unified command effectiveness at large-scale incidents, events and disasters.

The next area that offers significant chance for improvement is in day-to-day public-safety operations. This will be the hardest nut to crack. It requires a methodical approach that involves friendship, partnership, patience, sensitivity, training, a willingness to learn and understand from other perspectives, and perseverance. The process will take time and discussions may become argumentative but if an eye is focused on the prize – to create the most effective and safe public-safety communications environment – it will be one of the greatest accomplishments and newly forged relationships will become unshakable.

I suggest a 10-step process (when technology enables interoperability):

1. Make a conscientious effort to meet with other leaders of your community and/or region’s public safety community (law enforcement, EMS, fire, emergency managers, etc.) today. If possible, become friends. Friends are apt to help in a more understanding and responsive way than someone unknown to you. Effective governance is the overarching success to a long-term program.

2. Use the NIMS model to develop a public-safety interoperable communications plan. An interoperable communications plan is being required for the larger 75 national identified (UASI) regions and it makes sense for every community to do the same. It makes good sense and it will likely have an impact on future grants.

3. Establish a steering committee comprised of all the appropriate stakeholders and discuss philosophy and set acceptable boundaries. This should include all of the top public-safety department representatives.

4. Establish a Working Group to develop a draft plan to be reviewed by the Steering Committee.

a. Begin the process of rethinking how public safety communications could be better and safer in your day-to-day operations.

b. Be thinking about safety.

c. Consider how other agencies could enter your world – start small.

d. Consider how your agency might operate better with them.

e. Review regularly scheduled community events for opportunities such as sporting events, annual events and VIP visits.

5. Develop a regional public-safety interoperable communications plan which ultimately involves NIMS, NRP, unified command, interoperability, safety AND make sure it interfaces with the statewide interoperability plan if applicable.

6. Train on the plan by conducting Field Training Exercises (FTEs). The plan will accomplish nothing if training does not ensure that everyone understands and is proficient with it.

7. Conduct regional preparedness/response drills and test the plan and utilize the Interoperable Communications Technical Assistance Program’s (ICTAP) evaluation tool, which can be found by visiting

8. Identify deficiencies in the Interoperable Communications Plan (ICP) and modify appropriately. Every plan can be improved.

9. Expand the regional footprint to involve other surrounding communities. The larger the regional aspect, the more resources are immediately available during catastrophic events.

10. Conduct an annual review and encourage the ICP to operationally and technologically evolve. Always keep an eye on new operational ways to use the communications system and to explore technology that can enhance the present system.

This is truly a new beginning for public-safety communications. There are many opportunities along this journey but unless there is a diligent initiative to move into new and sometimes uncomfortable discussions, these new opportunities will remain elusive.

Disparate public-safety agencies have and will continue to evolve in the area of interoperability. While this may take years to assimilate into the collective public safety consciousness, it will eventually make the country much better prepared. For those who acknowledge that the interoperability world is round from the beginning, it will often take undaunted courage similar to that of Lewis and Clark when they explored and mapped the new frontier. This is a new public-safety frontier and until it is understood, fully explored and mapped – the silos that have limited communications will remain a barrier.

Charles Werner, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 28-year veteran of the fire service and is fire chief of the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. Werner serves on a number of local, state and federal interoperability working groups, and is technology chair for the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association and chair of the Commonwealth of Virginia First Responder Executive Committee. In addition, he serves on the SAFECOM Executive Committee and Advisory Group.

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