No Public Safety Agency Is an Island

March 1, 2007
Thomas J. Kuhlmann and Tarquin Morkel provide a case study of a Utah agency that demonstrates interoperability is within reach for smaller agencies.
When It Rains, It Pours! Lessons Learned When Spring Storms Flood Dispatch Center with Calls No Public Safety Agency Is an Island By THOMAS J. KUHLMANN and TARQUIN MORKEL Utah County Agencies Demonstrate Interoperability Is Within Reach for Smaller Agencies

As public safety agencies consider the future, many officials see a dire need for greater interagency cooperation. When potential natural disasters, terrorist attacks or other critical incidents strike, individual agencies need to be part of a well-coordinated multi-agency response. Single agencies - especially smaller organizations - may lack the capacity to confront large threats alone.

Agencies must create forums where leaders can discuss mutually important issues and develop joint strategies in order to work together successfully. They must also join together to create interoperable communication networks: infrastructure and technology that lets first responders and other public safety personnel share vital, real-time information during critical incidents and day-to-day operations. Isolated systems, which are "islands of communication," must be integrated into a constantly flowing ocean of cohesive, interoperable networks.

The 9/11 attacks highlighted the importance of interoperability. During these incidents, first responders were unable to exchange critical information due to incompatible communication systems and suffered tragic casualties. Since 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been fostering interoperability at local, state and federal levels. However, the DHS is making limited progress, because agencies continue to struggle with difficult challenges such as scarce funding; retraining; unsuitable technology; divergent or competing strategic visions; and managing difficult organizational transitions. The widely controversial response to Hurricane Katrina, four years after the 9/11 attacks, suggests that most public safety agencies still lack the capability to share crucial information during a crisis.

More evidence of challenges to nationwide interoperability came from SAFECOM in December 2006, when it released the results of its National Interoperability Baseline Survey. The extensive study is a snapshot that reveals enduring barriers to interoperability despite measures of success in certain areas: at least a third of the nation's public safety organizations still do not have any ability to interoperate with local, state and federal agencies - smaller agencies are lagging the furthest behind. The remaining two-thirds have developed varying degrees of interoperability. However, state-to-local - and to a lesser extent local-to-local - interoperability remains weak. The SAFECOM study recognizes that "the nation as a whole falls largely into the early stages (of interoperability)." SAFECOM is a communications program of the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Office for Interoperability and Compatibility (OIC).

Utah Agencies Make Progress

A number of Utah public safety agencies have spent the past three years creating interoperable networks that serve as exemplars. These case studies provide insight that needs to be communicated throughout the public safety community. As agencies share knowledge, we can develop more effective strategies. Agencies within Utah are quickly becoming recognized as pioneers in the interoperability field, because the state created the first truly interoperable, information-sharing network that integrates over 125 local, state and federal organizations.

Utah County, which is the second-largest county in Utah and serves roughly 25% of the state's population, is an important part of this network. The county's information-sharing network lets 22 fire departments and 18 EMS organizations communicate with all agencies and at all levels. Agencies in Utah County share many characteristics with smaller agencies around the nation. Provo Fire & Rescue, for instance, serves a community of 115,000 within a 42-plus-square-mile area, and operates on an annual budget of less than $7 million. Lehi Fire/EMS serves a community of 32,000 with two full-time personnel, a chief and a captain, plus five volunteer officers and 38 volunteer firefighters. Many similar agencies around the U.S. can easily identify with these agencies and apply Utah County's experience in their own environments.

Utah County's interoperability strategy focuses on three key guidelines:

  1. Fostering interagency cooperation and support.
  2. Implementing suitable technology.
  3. Developing an effective training plan.

Utah County developed an interoperability strategy in a supportive, cooperative environment. Agencies had been cultivating a positive atmosphere for many years by sharing know-how and tackling common issues in forums such as Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) meetings, Utah County Fire Chiefs meetings and others. The county's need for interoperable communications arose as agencies worked more closely and developed a greater need to share information. For example, the county needed an effective way to coordinate mutual response communications, manage, locate both shared and specialized equipment in various agencies' inventories, and share data in a real-time environment. Interoperable technology paired with a mobile program now extends these capabilities to authorized personnel everywhere in the county.

Creating a positive environment, where agencies can jointly develop an interoperability strategy, is advantageous for the following reasons:

  • Involvement - Departments have a say in proposals and feel more involved.
  • Consensus - Proposed systems embody each department's requirements.
  • Efficiency - Officials can approach funding issues more effectively.
  • Collective power - Agencies can leverage their collective buying power with vendors.

Utah County took the first steps toward interoperability in 2003, when Provo Fire & Rescue began discussing it with neighboring cities and searching for a suitable fire-oriented records management system (RMS). The department envisioned a single-point-of-data-entry system that let its personnel perform administrative functions in the field and share authorized information with neighboring departments.

Provo realized from the outset that its efforts would be fruitless if it worked in isolation. Interoperability could be attainable only with the support of other agencies. Provo garnered support for interoperability by presenting its ideas to officials in the region, including members of the LEPC and the county chiefs. Both groups proved to be a progressive forum, where officials discussed countywide interoperability; shared technical information; and considered issues such as privacy, security, funding and project implementation.

During their meetings, departments quickly recognized that interoperability was a shared priority. When officials considered the scope of potential threats in the region — a large wildfire, extreme weather events such as a tornado or microburst winds, a flood or earthquake along the Wasatch Fault - it was clear that no single agency could meet wide-scale incidents alone.

Payson Fire Chief Scott Spencer, discussing the common vision, said, "We sat down around the table and decided to move away from building small kingdoms - to work together for the good of protecting the citizen. We face the same problems so sharing information is essential - if we work alone, we don't progress."

The county collectively wanted to fortify preparedness and created a strong team to implement interoperability in a series of attainable steps:

  1. Develop an interoperable 800 MHz radio system.
  2. Create a data-sharing capability.
  3. Adopt a 700 MHz system for wireless voice, data and real-time video.

Spencer explained the importance of creating a strong implementation team, saying, "After everyone is on board with interoperability, you have to pick a group of representatives who have the authority to carry (the project) forward - get commitments from everyone, refine it, and see it through to completion."

Implementing Suitable Technology

Utah County's search for suitable firefighting and EMS interoperability technology began in 2005, when it issued a request for proposals (RFP) and invited vendors to present proposals in its leadership meetings. The county searched for a reliable system that was user friendly; affordable; required straightforward training; secure; mobile; reliable; and compatible with existing IT and communication systems.

Lehi Fire Department EMS Captain, Ricky Evans said of important system specifications, "You need a system that gives you the essential [tools] in one place - is friendly to users - simple to learn - with good client support - that is huge."

Spencer added, "We talked about how (agencies) were all on different systems and needed to share information on a call. We needed a system that is user friendly - you can use it to pull up information on the way to a call, see where resources are, enter information right there on site, and cut down on paperwork."

The county's ensuing experience teaches public safety officials the following valuable lessons about selecting an interoperability solution: 1. Target cost-effective, practical features instead of broad capabilities - The county carefully pursued high-value features and resisted purchasing a system that bundled costly, general capabilities. Agencies need to determine exactly how funding will translate into benefits for every organization with a stake in the project. Evans suggested, "You need to know exactly what you are going to get for your money and find a (vendor) who is willing to work flexibly with you to meet your needs." The county's cost-effective strategy created an additional benefit: Provo was able to secure a DHS grant in 2005. Provo ascribes the successful outcome to the fact that it was able to clearly explain how the funds would enhance public safety in the entire region, not just one agency. 2. Use collective buying power to negotiate with vendors - Utah County used collective buying power to enhance its ability to persuade vendors to provide product features and consent to price breaks. It is considering ways of approaching other equipment purchases in a similar fashion. 3. Select flexible technology that leaves you in control - Flexible technology translates into time and budget savings for public safety organizations. The county was concerned about the inflexible architecture of many systems that it reviewed. Many vendors require agencies to replace most or all of their existing communications and IT systems - an expensive demand that scraps years of training and investment in existing infrastructure in order for divergent agencies to work together successfully. Utah County favored interoperability technology that integrates existing systems and permits it to decide which systems to keep, upgrade or replace.

Security is another important aspect of control. Officials were interested in sharing important information with other agencies without losing control over their data. Some departments wondered whether interoperability would compromise data security. The county demanded a solution that provides exceptional, federally compliant, 128-bit encryption security, and lets agencies manage access controls and user permissions.

Provo Fire & Rescue found a solution by studying technology that was in service with the Provo Police Department. Provo approached the Utah-based company, FATPOT Technologies, regarding a mobile solution that was already under development for the firefighting and EMS environment. FATPOT proved to be a good fit for the county's requirements.

"After extensive research of our 23 city teams' needs, only one vendor had the unique technologies to respond to the RFP," Provo Fire Chief Coy Porter said.

End users across the county gain the following capabilities:

  • Mapping - View multi-agency GPS-equipped resources and call location information on a real-time digital map.
  • Dispatch - Reference detailed interagency dispatch information.
  • Lookups - Search for information from multiple sources with a single lookup procedure; real-time MSDS data, fire protection systems and building schematics, etc.
  • Communication - Review, listen to or send secure Amber alerts, ATLs and other notifications; exchange e-mail messages; and use an instant messaging system to communicate with local, state or federal personnel.
  • Training - Administer certifications and plan training events.
  • Reporting - Submit required reports directly from the scene to various organizations simultaneously.
  • Inventory - Manage shared equipment.
  • Administration - One point of data entry eliminating redundant entry.

The vendor integrated its software with existing communications and legacy IT systems, and provides a flexible framework for future developments.

Developing Effective Training

The county's interoperable network would be useless without dedicated public safety professionals who are trained to use the software proficiently. Agencies are assured of success if they effectively train personnel, and mitigate users' concerns in advance of deploying a new system. First responders, administrators and officials are often cautious about acquiring new, computer-related skills. They need sufficient time and instruction to prepare for new technology on the job. A high-stress incident, for example, is a bad time to try and figure out unfamiliar software.

"A system that leaves you scratching your head in confusion after you complete (ineffective) training is going to meet resistance and create bad feelings," Evans said.

Some individuals may be reluctant to embrace new software due to fear or frustration. Others may hesitate to integrate new software into their duties because they do not personally see the benefits of the new system. If personnel become frustrated, fearful or skeptical and shy away from a new system, it could be relegated to disuse.

Officials can use the following tactics to encourage full-time, part-time, and volunteer personnel to accept the new technology:

  • Timely training - Develop a training program with the vendor well in advance of the date that the technology is to be deployed.
  • Train the trainer - Train leaders and system administrators in a train-the-trainer environment.
  • Leadership - Show leadership support for the system
  • Focus group - Create an in-house focus group; present the proposed training program to the group, involve them in beta testing/implementation and then use its feedback to fine-tune instructional materials and courses.
  • Technical experts - Designate trusted individuals within the department to act as knowledgeable technical experts; provide them with extensive training; and allow the expert the flexibility and availability to assist first responders.
  • Acceptance - Sell the benefits of the new system to personnel before you commence instruction using demonstrations or orientations.
  • Format - Provide training that appeals to various styles of learning, such as visual (demonstrations, manuals, etc.), spoken (instruction) and hands-on (exercises, workshops, etc.).
  • Improvements - Assess how well first responders are using the system and fine-tune training to correct deficiencies.

"You need to get the 'buy in' from everyone who uses the (system)," Spencer said. "Some people in departments have limited computer skills; they don't like using computers. You can overcome this with training."


Agencies will have to develop a greater level of interagency coordination and implement wide-scale interoperability to meet future threats. Interoperability will also play a greater part in day-to-day activities by letting personnel streamline administrative processes and reduce paperwork.

When the public safety community commits to propagate effective practices - supporting one another, developing a shared vision of interoperability, acquiring technology wisely, and providing correct training - the nation will expedite its quest for interoperability.

THOMAS J. KUHLMANN is the deputy fire chief of Provo, UT, Fire & Rescue, where he has been employed for 19 years. He holds a master of public safety degree, Fire Officer II, EMT-P and has served in public safety for 27 years. Kuhlmann's public safety experience includes E-911 system specification, 800 MHz radio communication implementation, RMS systems and data networks. TARQUIN MORKEL holds an MBA with an emphasis in communications. He has a background in technical writing and has developed documentation for the U.S. Army as well as software and banking organizations. Morkel currently serves as a communications manager for a public safety software provider.

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