The IAFC's Guide To Interoperable Communications

Aug. 1, 2005

Communications problems and the inability to coordinate with other disciplines and jurisdictions have been recognized as significant operational limitations in every major incident, from the shootings at Columbine High School to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Many reports have been published supporting interoperability; unfortunately, most of them have been largely ignored. That's why I wasn't so sure about what sort of impact the new Top Priority: A Fire Service Guide to Interoperable Communications from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) would have when I first heard about it. I am optimistic.

This handbook builds from the consensus of the National Task Force on Interoperability, integrates SAFECOM's practitioner-driven philosophy and provides real-world steps to make it happen in your community. But the question remains, is it enough?

Written by Bill Pessemier, the IAFC's executive communications systems advisor, Top Priority makes the case directly to the fire service. "Interoperability is viewed by many as desirable, but not essential. This view can no longer be supported," Pessemier told me. "The purpose of the handbook is to provide fire and emergency services with a comprehensive understanding of interoperability. This understanding, in turn, can form the foundation for increasing the effectiveness of emergency response services and improving the safety of emergency response personnel."

Although written from a fire-service perspective, the handbook can be used by fire departments, emergency medical services, law enforcement agencies and emergency managers. Pessemier's direct experience as the fire chief who responded to the Columbine High School tragedy provides an insightful influence and explains his conviction and persistence in making interoperability real.

Will It Work?

Information is powerful in its ability to change perspectives about difficult issues. Can the information contained in this handbook change the perspective of fire and emergency services regarding the importance and value of interoperability? Can it also change the perspective of those who control local resources so that interoperability becomes a higher priority for local funding? If we are to realize the full potential of interoperability, every public safety agency must decide to make interoperability a higher priority, and then establish an action plan to achieve it. This handbook can help the fire service maximize interoperability based on local and regional resources, practices and needs.

IAFC announced the handbook to its members May 1, but posted it on its website in mid-March. In the first month it was on the web, almost 2,000 fire officers checked it out. The handbook provides a common operational definition of interoperability, discusses the foundation for interoperable communications, and provides direction to establish interoperability between and among public safety services, including fire, emergency medical and law enforcement organizations.

Pessemier's common-sense approach may be what we need to get people to act. He understands our culture. He's been the incident commander when communications worked and didn't work. He lays out specific steps to make it happen for departments that have never considered the process (establish a regional interoperability planning group including at a minimum: fire law enforcement, emergency medical services and emergency management) to those of us who think we've got a pretty good interoperable communications system (measure your interoperability communications using SAFECOM's Interoperability Continuum and execute communication training exercises to see the forest from the trees).

Think Operations And Technology

A big point that Pessemier makes repeatedly is that you need both operational and technical interoperability. The ability to talk or share data involves technical interoperability, while the ability to work together in a coordinated manner involves operational interoperability. Specifically, operational interoperability is the ability of different jurisdictions or disciplines to provide services to and accept services from other jurisdictions or disciplines, and to use those services to operate more effectively together at an emergency.

From a practical perspective, operational interoperability means that personnel from different jurisdictions or services perform as a team under a common command-and-control structure. To do this, they must be able to communicate horizontally with other response resources, and vertically with appropriate command staff. In the fire service, automatic and mutual aid agreements help to share response resources. Yet many jurisdictions do not operate effectively together because of isolated communications systems or differences in operational practices, or more subtle and difficult cultural issues, such as territorialism, competition, and an attitude of self-sufficiency. Another opportunity to improve operational interoperability is through effective planning and implementation of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which will be required to remain eligible for future federal grants.

These obstacles to operational interoperability have limited the extent to which the fire service has utilized advances in technical interoperability, thereby reducing the effectiveness of response resources and potentially jeopardizing the safety of emergency response personnel. If public safety services are to achieve interoperability, the obstacles to operational interoperability must be made explicit so that they can be fully understood and overcome.

Technical interoperability is the ability of systems to provide dynamic interactive information and data exchange among command, control and communications elements for planning, coordinating, integrating and executing response operations. The most common systems used by public safety services involve voice and data information exchange, which is usually accomplished by Land Mobile Radio (LMR) communications systems. Pagers, telephones and cellular telephone systems are also commonly used to exchange information. Establishing and maintaining appropriate levels of technical interoperability is essential to fully realize operational interoperability. Technical systems must reliably allow exchanging essential voice and data information that is accurate, timely, relevant and operationally useful, especially when the information is mission critical.

Check It Out

The handbook was made available in part through sponsorship by Nextel Communications. In fact, the IAFC now endorses Nextel as a supplemental communications solution for the fire service when coverage is available. With this consideration, Pessemier covers a variety of technological solutions and Bill and I agree that no one solution fits all departments or regions. He supports accepting the 80% solution.

"Public safety organizations have high standards for personnel and equipment," Pessemier writes. "In many cases, the ability to establish improved interoperability has been stalled because it has not been possible to identify a solution that meets the high standards of public safety. In some cases, it may be prudent to accept a solution that now is less than ideal so that interoperability is improved in the short term."

For example, if a solution can be found that increased interoperability from 40% to 80%, that is a 100% increase in capacity. The solution may not be perfect, but it represents a substantial improvement. Add to this increased capacity the fact that new technologies provide many other non-mission-critical features that enhance public safety operations, such as computer-aided dispatch (CAD) alerts to wireless devices, Internet access, GPS and more. This increased capacity gives you a solution that is worth considering.

To download your copy of Top Priority: A Fire Service Guide to Interoperable Communications, go to and click on Talk Smart. Be sure not to let this document collect dust on your shelf.

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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