The Importance of Interoperable Communications in Crisis Management

Interoperable communications in public safety and emergency response are essential in our increasingly complex world and how we communicate. With communities having multiple police, fire, and medical jurisdictions, it’s become even more vital they’re able to communicate for the safety of the community and the responders. Add in layers of other government agencies, schools, hospitals, event venues, who also need to communicate and share information in real-time, making having highly interoperable communications even all the more important.

Without real-time communication, crisis management in public safety can be greatly hindered. The ability to work with multiple agencies on different systems using different radios, but still share real-time information and data to coordinate efforts is the pinnacle of interoperability. Efforts to achieve this have improved since the inception of the Department of Homeland Security’s Project SAFECOM in 2001, which expanded interoperability from technical aspects, such as equipment patching, to also include procedural elements. Despite Homeland Security grants made available after September 11, 2001, that encouraged interoperability, some agencies still don’t have the capability to do it all.

Interoperable Communications Support Safety of Responders and the Community

Consider a large-scale catastrophic event, such as a hurricane, flood, terrorist activity, or an active shooter situation. While not as frequent, this is precisely when first responders must be able to share information and data in real-time, to not only keep themselves safe in times of crisis, but also provide safety for surrounding communities. Having this capability enables information to be delivered faster across multiple agencies and jurisdictions so a coordinated responses can be effectively planned and executed.

There have been many past events that are good examples where interoperable communications would have greatly improved the situation. A flooding event along the Ohio River that had federal, state and local agencies all responding to help, without a way to share information quickly, so responders literally had to yell at one another across flooded areas. In another circumstance where compatible communications would have saved time, an ambulance drove around an area for three minutes looking for a wounded officer as another officer on scene worked to relay precise location instructions through their respective communications centers.

Interoperability Through Long-Term Planning and Purchasing

Large capital purchases require planning, not only for the installation and integration, but also for budgeting and purchasing. Interoperability has been encouraged through grant funding and other programs on several levels of government since September 11, 2001. Some urban areas have also created multi-agency groups devoted to interoperability to include communications, training, and procedures.

Interoperability planning should also include other agencies, jurisdictions, mutual aid providers and stakeholders. Non-agency stakeholders, such as schools, hospitals, event spaces and others who potentially need interoperable communications during a crisis should be included in planning. Regional planning not only adopts a common plan, but also provides shared training opportunities and the ability to shape policies and procedures to guide future interoperability.

Interoperable Communications Provide Continuity of Service and Shared Resources

The need for interoperability in larger scale incidents is often what’s most talked about, yet it’s equally as important in the regular day-to-day public safety operations that require multi-agency collaboration, such as a fire department requesting police response, structural fires requiring responding units from neighboring communities, vehicle chases across jurisdictional boundaries, and bringing another agency onto a call for help or service.

Interoperable communications allow for more cooperation and coordination and remove the need for manually or sequentially passing information between communications centers or incident commands, saving time and resources.

According to an interoperability guide by the US Department of Homeland Security, 90% of first responders’ interoperability usage comes from more day-to-day situations. Interoperability of communications technology and radio language allows continuity of service, even if field units are communicating with a different communications center or incident command. Normalizing interoperability through communications ensures users are familiar with the equipment, procedures and plain language needed when sharing information.

Interoperable Communications, Interoperable People

Efficiently handling crisis situations of any size, type, and duration requires having all involved parties and systems on the same page. When talking about interoperable communications in a critical capacity, we’re often describing the desired state of the technology being used to communicate. Fair, because the desired and actual states of interoperability between the systems used in public safety are often quite disparate.

Ultimately, interoperability is really the desired state of the people responding in time of need. The real time and secure dissemination of information across technology is simply a means to that end. Unfortunately, getting the technology truly interoperable is often anything but simple.

By: Tom Giles

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