Interoperability: An In-Depth Review

May 1, 2003
Charles Werner tracks down answers to the question, “What is interoperability?” and defines it meaning for the fire-rescue service.
On 9/11, the interoperability problem was born, or so you might have thought. The reality is that the fire service has been struggling with the issue of interoperability for decades. Whether it was interoperability during daily operations or a catastrophic event, the need has always been present, yet poorly addressed.

Suddenly, interoperability became the issue of the day and was and is being addressed by people other than the fire service. The focus on interoperability has been influenced by a number of causes. First, the terrorist attacks identified issues and concerns surrounding interoperability and operability by investigative reports and highly publicized by the media. On the interoperability side, it was the highly publicized need for agencies to communicate with one another on a scale never imagined. On the operability side, the issue became in-building coverage and its effect on emergency operations.

Second, millions of dollars of federal grant money have been earmarked (but still not distributed) specifically for interoperable communications equipment. In fact, $180 million was marked for interoperable communications equipment for firefighting and EMS. This creates incentives for manufacturers and vendors to develop and market communications equipment that provides solutions for interoperability.

Third, legislators are now faced with defining "interoperable communications equipment" and developing strategies for the same. What does the term interoperability mean and what are acceptable solutions to achieve it? Additionally, what is the definition of "first responder," since many of the federal grant monies refer to first responders? Now we have the issue of interoperability being pushed by the fire service, law enforcement, EMS agencies, vendors and legislators while being highly publicized by the media. "We must achieve interoperability!"

The question remains, "What IS interoperability?" Nearing the end of September 2002, I found myself discussing these very issues as a member of the Secure Virginia First Responder Interoperability Working Group. This Working Group is one of the most effective groups that I have been involved and in less than six weeks came up with positive observations and recommendations. The group involved members of the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department, Charlottesville Fire Department, Virginia Department of Fire Programs, Virginia State Police, Virginia Department of Emergency Management, Virginia Office of Public Safety and others and is facilitated by Virginia Interoperability Coordinator Twyla Garrett.

I would like to share some of the observations and suggestions that were made by this working group to the Secure Virginia Panel.

Defining "first responder." "Fire, emergency medical personnel, law enforcement and other identified entities who, by specialty or profession, normally arrive first on the scene of an emergency incident to assess or take action to save lives, protect property, and/or mitigate the situation." Please note that the words "normally arrive first" are critical to this definition.

What is interoperability? "The ability for people from different functional areas to communicate effectively at an incident site (tactical) or between jurisdictions or levels of government (strategic)." This does NOT mean the ability for everyone at an incident to be able to talk at will to everyone else. That is the definition of chaos. It does mean those intercommunications that support effective incident management (tactical) and emergency management (strategic) activities that also support continuity of operations and continuity of government functions in emergencies and catastrophic events.

Several questions blur the notion of interoperability. How is interoperability achieved? Is it a human factor, a technology factor or a combination of many factors? I am one of the most outspoken technology advocates in the fire service, but I believe (along with the other members of the working group) that interoperability can be achieved more quickly, more effectively and least expensively by implementing an effective incident/unified management plan.

A number of articles reported that on 9/11, the New York City Police Department made observations and warned their personnel of the imminent collapse of the second tower of the World Trade Center, but that FDNY firefighters never received that information. This example in and of itself demonstrates this very point. If incident commanders of various agencies work under a unified command, all agencies would have been aware of this information simultaneously. Unified command does not require any agency to order how other agencies perform their tactical operations, it simply provides a means to achieve interoperable communications and incident coordination.

One incident management system that has already been mandated by several states (Alaska, New York and others) is the National Interagency Incident Management System (NIIMS). Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP) Executive Director Adam Thiel has been active in the Secure Virginia initiatives and advised that VDFP will team up with fire, emergency agencies and law enforcement agencies to provide a statewide implementation plan and delivery strategy for NIIMS.

Harlen McEwen, a former police chief in Ithaca, NY, and member of the International Association of Police Chiefs, shared his thoughts with me that it would be beneficial to initiate a dialogue with law enforcement to further develop the NIIMS model to incorporate the unique characteristics of law enforcement. That will make the model more effective.

How do you achieve effective interoperability? "Through 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.

Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Captain John Diamantes and Virginia Professional Firefighters President Mike Mohler (and Fairfax F&R captain) told me their stories regarding interoperability during the Pentagon attack on 9/11. They explained that with the one of the soundest technology 800 trunked public safety radio systems in the country that there were glitches. There were some mismatched talk groups, there were training issues with the radios and there were in-building radio problems. These issues (with the exception of in-building coverage) would be overcome by implementation of radio training sessions and modifications in day-to-day operations.

What is wireless interoperability? On the technology side, there is the need for wireless interoperability. In most definitions, it is wireless interoperability that is being researched and addressed. This is where interoperable communications equipment is key.

"Wireless interoperability is the ability for public safety personnel to communicate across different wireless systems when necessary. Seamless and secure radio communications are often their only lifeline when operating in a crisis environment, and without communications interoperability, both life and property are put at risk."

How does wireless interoperability vary? The Public Safety Wireless Network (PSWN) has defined three specific levels of interoperability as:

  1. Day-to-Day Interoperability - Coordination during routine public safety operations (fighting fires, vehicular pursuit).
  2. Mutual Aid Interoperability - Joint and immediate response to a catastrophic incident or natural disaster and requires tactical communications among numerous groups of public safety personnel (airplane crashes, bombings, forest fires, earthquakes and hurricanes).
  3. Tactical Interoperability - Local, state and federal agencies coming together for an extended period to address a public safety concern (extended recovery operations for major disasters, provide security at major events, and conduct operations in prolonged criminal investigations).

Who is discussing interoperability? Many agencies are involved in the discussion on interoperability. Congressmen Curt Weldon and Steny Hoyer, co-chairmen of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, issued separate letters to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Chairman Michael K. Powell of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), requesting information from the agencies concerning preparing fire departments for large-scale emergencies.

Specific agencies or groups also are discussing interoperability. The Public Safety Wireless Network ( is one of the most visible. Started in 1996 and continued today in response to Presidential initiatives, the PSWN program is dedicated to saving lives and protecting property through improvements to public safety wireless communications interoperability. The program's creation and continuance is the direct result of the leadership of federal chief information officers (CIOs) and public safety communications managers.

Project SAFECOM ( was established after the President's Management Council designated wireless interoperability for public safety as a priority. The eGov Task Force specified, that as a result of Project SAFECOM, public safety personnel shall be able to communicate with other local, state and federal agencies in the event of an emergency or other public safety response event.

AGILE, the acronym for Advanced Generation of Interoperability for Law Enforcement (, is another example. In addition, the National Institute of Justice, Office of Science and Technology, has funded the creation of a National Task Force on Interoperability (NTFI). The mission of the NTFI is to help public safety achieve communications interoperability. To accomplish this, the NTFI will provide education/information to state and local elected and appointed officials and their representative associations regarding the benefits of interoperability, assist them in addressing the policies needed to overcome current barriers, and provide a forum for public policy makers to partner their efforts with the efforts of the public safety community to address interoperability issues in a more comprehensive way.

The NTFI recently released several publications, including Why Can't We Talk? and When They Can't Talk, Lives Are Lost. The publications can be downloaded from the website at

The FCC has also encouraged the development of State Interoperability Executive Committees (SIEC) ( The FCC designated approximately 10% (2.6 MHz) of the 700 MHz public safety spectrum for nationwide interoperable communications. The FCC determined that administration of the interoperability channels should occur at the state level by a SIEC or an existing equivalent agency. The Association of Public Safety Communications Officers (APCO) also addressed interoperability at its Homeland Security Summit in June 2002 ( This is only a partial list of organizations that are discussing interoperability and this demonstrates the extensive amount of resources that are researching this topic.

Funding for interoperability. As previously mentioned, there has been a reference that $180 million is dedicated to firefighting and EMS interoperable communications equipment. Don't get too excited. I did some simple math for Virginia and this is the result: Divide $180 million by 50 states, and then divide that sum by 130-plus localities in Virginia. That results in a whopping $28,000 for each locality. How much interoperability can that buy? By my estimation, it doesn't buy much.

Other money has been or will soon be released from the Department of Justice that may be used for first responder communications equipment and other categories as well. Last, there have been last-minute disappearing acts with first responder dedicated money.

Soon after 9/11, there was much rhetoric to provide $3.5 billion for first responder preparedness, training and equipment. To date, that money has not materialized. Before Senator Trent Lott's departure as Senate Majority Leader, he said in a press conference that the Senate under his leadership would carefully scrutinize spending on emergency communications and other first-responder monies proposed in the wake of the terrorist attacks. With Congress adjourning without approving additional funding for communications interoperability or first-responder radios, Lott indicated that advocates for such funding could face a tough time getting it during the 108th Congress.

"I don't want this to become a backdoor way to just have revenue sharing, to just spew money out all across the country," Lott said during a press conference in response to a question from TRDaily. "I want the people in (small-town) Mississippi to feel secure, but I don't think the terrorists are going to find them. Let's just not make this another way where we go across the country throwing out checks. Let's put the checks where the greatest need is for first responders and for homeland security."

More recently, it looked like the FIRE Act Grant Program would be funded to the amount of $750 million. Then as reported on, "FEMA was to begin accepting applications for Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (FIRE Act) … but abruptly announced a delay due to 'unanticipated technicalities." This brought on intense speculation, not the least of which supported the idea the Bush administration was attempting to repurpose the money to some of its priority programs.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told the National Association of Counties, "Now, in the end, some of these dollars (terrorism-related money) were deflected to other priorities. To the extent that we can use the flexibility that Congress gave us around those programs to shift some of them back specifically to counterterrorism spending, we're going to do that."

What are wireless interoperability solutions? In the working group discussions, the consensus was that interoperability solutions could be categorized as short-term, long-term, strategic and tactical. These solutions include such things as wireless phones, Direct Connect, voice over IP, a cache of portable radios and trunked radio systems to name a few. In upcoming issues, I will highlight interoperability solutions from around the country. If you would like to submit an interoperable communications solution being deployed in the U.S., please send me an e-mail at [email protected].

Charles Werner, a Firehouse® contributing editor and the TechZone editor for, is a 26-year veteran of the fire service and currently serves as the deputy fire chief for the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. Werner also is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Communications Committee, chair of the IAFC Technology Advisory Group, technology chair/webmaster for the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association, communications coordinator for the National Fire Academy Alumni Association and webmaster for the National Incident Management System Consortium. In addition, he serves as the Commonwealth of Virginia's Interoperability Coordinator. His e-mail address is [email protected].

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!