Even individually tackling some of the many problems that hinder interoperability today – proprietary technology, insufficient radio spectrum and lack of funding – won’t lead to full communication among first responders until all stakeholders involved begin to collaborate.
Though the level at which the governance structure should originate is open for discussion, what’s not is that the interoperability problem, though it only rears its ugly head occasionally, must be fixed. The National Governors Association tabbed it as its top priority, and it will take painstaking, coordinated efforts among first-responder and local agencies to do it.
In a recent exchange before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff sparred with committee member Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who criticized Congress for blocking $3.1 billion in grants for police and fire agencies to spend on equipment. “This is not, frankly, a technology issue,” Chertoff said. “This is an issue of having community leaders come to an agreement.”
Though technology standards and spectrum play key roles in solving the interoperability puzzle, the pieces won’t come together without extensive planning and coordination. That much is the consensus.
“It’s a coordination problem,” said Chris Essid, coordinator for Virginia’s statewide interoperability program. “It’s 90 percent coordination, 10 percent technology. It’s easy to go buy equipment and say, ‘We put some equipment out there.’ But what’s difficult is the policies, procedures, governance and coordination of it.”
My New Toys
The technology exists to fix the interoperability problem. A solution with technology as its core, however, will end up as others before it – failing or even exacerbating the interoperability problem.
“I’ve been in public safety a long time,” said APCO’s McCarley. “I’ve seen several technical fixes for interoperability put in place that were feasibly workable. They worked fairly well, but they all fell by the wayside for one reason or another.”
McCarley said in some cases there was no ongoing policy to ensure the technology was used correctly and only for public safety purposes. As a result, she explained, the technology ended up being used for other things, such as routine traffic stops, and then faded as a viable public safety tool.
In other cases, a lack of training condemned the efforts, or one agency had no interest in working with another, such as police not working with fire.
After 9/11, money was made available for technological upgrades, but that hasn’t come close to solving the problem. “The first knee-jerk reaction was to throw money at it,” Essid said, adding that now, every locality has a mobile command center, and in some places, the fire department and law enforcement each have one. “It became very clear we were not solving the problem. Everyone is going out and buying new toys, and what we need is governance and coordination at the state and regional level to figure out what the priority for the region should be. Unfortunately a lot of money was spent to get to this point over the last few years.”
What happened after 9/11 seemed to perpetuate the problem of agencies and locals adopting stand-alone systems, which John Clark saw as former deputy chief of public safety for the FCC. “They wanted to maintain their own FCC license – their own completely stand-alone communication system,” he said. “We heard this again and again. The local sheriffs, local police chiefs didn’t want to lose any control over their communications systems; they saw it as a security issue, as well as a control and turf issue.”
That has been evident in locales that purchased, as part of a state mandate, technology called cross-band switches that could bridge the gap between disparate radio systems, but never put it to use, said Mayer-Schönberger. “First-responder agencies bought boxes that could patch together two or more different networks, but many of these agencies never unpacked the box and tried it,” he said. “It’s sitting in storage rooms, but was bought to tick off a mandate to become interoperable. That worries me.”
Even standards, such as Project 25, designed to help first responders get on the same page in terms of technology, accomplish little if there’s no collaboration. There could be adjoining jurisdictions with Project 25 standard systems that won’t talk to each other if there is no planned interoperability. “Technical standards are not really the problem,” Clark said. “Having the standard doesn’t solve the problem. You still need the will to connect the two systems [through a central switch that connects a central talk group] and then you need the protocol for how the system is to be used. The will to do it is more of a problem than the technology or the standards to allow it to happen.”
Project 25 standards were developed to allow digital voice radios to operate with one another, and Project 25-compliant equipment is being sold as an interoperable solution. But two Project 25-compliant systems won’t communicate if they’re operated in different bands, which is often the case and won’t change anytime soon.
“There is no practical way all of public safety could be migrated into a single band with adequate performance characteristics and bandwidth to meet all public safety needs,” said Kevin Kearns, executive director of iXP Corp. “We will always have public safety agencies working in multiple bands, and therefore some form of bridging technologies has to be employed to allow them to interoperate.”
These bridging technologies are available, but so far the necessary preplanning and coordination across jurisdictional lines haven’t come to fruition – and there’s no rush to gain interoperability in most areas. “We’re hearing now,” Clark said, “that money being made available to first responders for communications is being put in to upgrade their communications, but not necessarily upgrade them in an interoperable way.”
Defining the Need
That’s not surprising, Clark said, because the majority of the time, most first-responder agencies only needto use internal communications. “The difficulty here is how much you want to invest in those terrible instances that only come around once in a while,” he said. “So that issue – of how important this is compared to other priorities – is the real issue, and the issue that needs to be addressed at the national level.”
The federal government is in the position to recognize where the need is and where funding should be allocated, Clark said, whereas the local agency has great incentive not to invest in something in which the return on investment (ROI) might be difficult to measure.
Brian Steckler, lecturer for the Department of Information Science at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., knows from experience after the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami that regardless of the ROI, interoperability – not just between jurisdictions but agencies – could be critical during a disaster. “You want as much of a chance for situational awareness as possible, and trust and everybody reading from the same sheet of music,” he said. “You don’t know how important that is until you get down there in the field and sometimes a fireman from one jurisdiction may not need to talk to a fireman from another, but lots of times they do.”
Essid said many state and local agencies downplay the need for coordination and/or just don’t get around to it. “People get bogged down so much with their own duties,” he explained. “Say you’re a radio system manager for a locality – you’re probably going to have a ton on your plate. You don’t have a lot of time to go out and see what other localities are doing. Usually you’re so busy, you’re going to just get your immediate job done.”
It sometimes takes pressure from officials to get the stakeholders to the table, Clark said. “In some places the financial – and in many places the state – pressure to save money and resources by joining 800 MHz trunk systems has overcome whatever local reluctance there might have been,” he said. “It’s worked better in some places than others.”
In many areas, it’s taken an event to rally a region around interoperability. “It is a lot easier to get local agencies in northern Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia excited about interoperable communications,” Clark said, “since the last 20 years of problems that were occasioned by the lack of interoperability.”
There’s no magic formula for getting stakeholders to the table, McCarley said. “In some areas there are regional planning groups, regional planning authorities,” she said. “In some areas it’s more of a community of interoperability among cities that have joined together having comparable facilities. It depends on the state, really. I’m a big believer in local control, local initiatives, and where local initiatives get the job done, I think it’s an excellent solution for taxpayers in that area.”
Regional events, like the recent Strong Angel III exercise in San Diego at which Steckler manned a command center, are a good way to build a social network among first responders and ease cultural anxieties. “One of the main themes is bringing disparate groups together,” Steckler said.
It’s important for first-responder agencies to practice communicating, and to review procedures and develop solutions to long-standing problems.
Often resources are available but not used. After Las Vegas held a tabletop exercise in February 2006 as part of the Nevada Regional Communications Interoperability Pilot project, a SAFECOM program, the city realized it was underutilizing two mutual aid channels, relying instead on cell phones and dispatchers. The channels were functional, but first responders weren’t trained how to use them.
Whatever the initial vehicle for developing regional coordination, it must be taken up as a new way of doing business. In many states and local areas, Essid said, the problem of interoperability is left to a fire chief or police chief. “Interoperability part time; I just look at that and go, ‘Wow. If someone is doing it part time, it’s not going to work.'”
All indications are that states will have to get serious about regional interoperability and the National Incident Management System (NIMS) to continue receiving DHS funds. “Sometimes, just like everywhere, you’ve got strong personalities, and maybe some folks just say, ‘We don’t want to coordinate with them, and we’ll go it alone,'” Essid said. “But as I’ve said before, their days are numbered.”
Regional collaboration too can reduce costs for an individual agency while developing interoperability, Kearns said. “From my perspective, the solution is to do more things collaboratively with other agencies and jurisdictions. Not only can this help spread high-capital expenditures over a larger funding base, it can result in systems covering larger areas and more agencies. Interoperability becomes a natural byproduct, but not the driving reason for the expenditure. The driving force was getting effective communications for the 99 percent of the time that they don’t need interoperability, they just need to communicate effectively on a daily basis within their own agency.”
Essid said more than $1 billion has been spent on infrastructure in Virginia, and millions are saved when jurisdictions coordinate their purchases. When one local agency learned that it was planning on deploying the same system being used in a nearby jurisdiction, it saved $6 million on maintenance and construction by partnering with that jurisdiction.
Interoperability Full Time
That’s the kind of collaboration Virginia was aiming for when it created its Statewide Communications Interoperability Planning program, which Nevada and Kentucky have adopted as well. This plan establishes a governance structure and develops local government focus groups that collaborate on the needs of each locality and the state as a whole. Virginia’s program is run from the governor’s office by a full-time interoperability coordinator – Essid.
“Virginia said we need to create a full-time position in the governor’s office or high up in government to let everybody know it’s a priority, and we need this person to work with all the different first responders,” Essid said of his position.
There are few, if any, positions like his in the country so far, but SAFECOM recommends that states have a full-time interoperability coordinator.
“Some states have a position, say, in technology. Again, I like to harp on this: This is not a technology problem,” Essid said. “I coordinate with the technology folks too; they’re one of the stakeholders. But you might lose your relationship with the first-responder community if you just throw it over to technology; you just start to think of everything in a technological frame of mind.”
The statewide plan creates a forum for state and local first responders to share ideas and concerns. Often, the plight of one agency or jurisdiction is different from that of its neighbor.
“We’re there to offer lessons learned from one locality to another,” Essid said. “The stakeholders will share information with each other. By working as a group, we’ve got all kinds of input and potential solutions to any problems that folks are encountering, so that’s a good example of discussing problems of different frames of mind.”
The process, Essid said, was driven by local agencies that were called to the table and asked to identify statewide needs and problems, and Essid’s office facilitates the adoption of lessons learned. The 800 MHz rebanding issue is an example of how the state can address local needs and provide guidance. In addition, Essid hired a consultant to examine where the state is in terms of rebanding, and how it can help some local agencies by sharing lessons learned from others.
Another key issue identified by the local agencies was the reliance on language protocols that differ from one agency to the next. That was the key topic at the two-day Virginia Interoperable Communications Conference held in October 2006 in Portsmouth, Va., announcing an initiative whereby local agencies statewide will now use standard language. “We announced our Common Language Protocol that will move Virginia responders from using 10-codes to plain language, which is required by NIMS,” Essid said. “This is the perfect example of coordination. This is an initiative based on coordination and not technology. Even if you could technologically communicate, you’re not capable of doing it if you’re using different codes. It’s like you speaking Japanese and me speaking Russian. You say the wrong code and you could get someone hurt.”
The initiative is two years in the works, and was developed by getting local agencies to the table to discuss the issue. The commonwealth will take the protocols to SAFECOM and hopes that upon endorsement, it will be implemented nationwide. Essid said it’s critical that states coordinate among themselves and develop a standard protocol.
“My [comment to SAFECOM] is, if every state comes up with a different way of implementing plain language – here we go again.”
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