Can You Hear Me Now?

Could your radio system kill someone?


In 2004, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) established the Office of Interoperability and Compatibility (OIC) to oversee public safety interoperability programs. These programs address issues such as communications, equipment, and training. Like many issues affecting a diverse public safety workforce, a common definition didn't exist. Due to this, SAFECOM, the communications program of OIC, defined communications interoperability as "the ability of emergency response agencies to talk across disciplines and jurisdictions via radio communications systems, to exchange voice and data with one another on demand, in real time, when needed, as authorized" (take another breath). What this means, in essence, is we can talk through the equipment we're trained on to other emergency personnel, regardless of the patch sewn onto our (or their) uniforms. But, how?

At this point, I could launch into a long explanation of techno-gibberish describing DHS's OIC SAFECOM Interoperability Continuum regulating NIMS SOPs. I could throw out terms such as packet data protocols, Project 25 (P25) standard digital systems, voice over IP (VoIP), land mobile radio (LMR), and legacy VHS, UHF, and 800-MHz systems on different spectrum bands. But, quite honestly, as fascinating as the radio interoperability world is, most dispatchers' eyes start to gloss over after about ten minutes. What's important about all the changes initiated by DHS is they seem to be filtering down to public safety agencies. And, DHS is backing these changes with federal funding. Since 2001, DHS has provided more than $2 billion in grants for interoperable communications. Along with the money, DHS created guidelines assisting agencies in designing systems. By outlining recommendations and requirements, small agencies, where the officer with the most computer know-how also serves as the radio interoperability coordinator, can be in line with large municipal agencies with numerous technological gurus on staff. SAFECOM's FY2007 Grant Guidance states, "It has become increasingly clear to the emergency response community that communications interoperability cannot be solved by any one organization. The solution requires a partnership among emergency response organizations across all levels of government." Interoperability must address the needs of everyone. This includes Marjorie Chandonais, chief of police and the only police officer for the village of Lake Linden (MI), who relies on the radio to get her backup from a neighboring jurisdiction. Without radio interoperability, she would be unable to call for help at all. Fortunately for her, Michigan is one of about ten states which have built statewide radio systems.

Improvements are being made across the country, but slowly. A 2006 DHS survey of 22,400 law enforcement, fire response, and EMS agencies found "approximately two-thirds of agencies reporting use interoperability to some degree." For those agencies still struggling to meet interoperability guidelines, several obstacles have been noted, such as inadequate training and planning, lack of cooperation, and incomplete standards as well as lack of funds. Agencies must be willing to plan for and practice cross-jurisdictional incidents. Dispatchers, as well as first responders, must be familiar with how their equipment works, whether it is a multi-agency channel, a gateway patch, or another type of network system. Employees must be trained on how to communicate when working with other agencies, including discouraging incompatible intra-agency radio codes. Federal and state governments must be willing to make interoperability a high priority and back that with funding. First responders must demand radio systems which work and are appropriate for the types of situations which occur. With these standards in place, the next time a Phoenix officer clears on his radio, "825L to radio, I'm initiating a felony-stop just north of Camelback," the response he'll hear will be, "Glendale D25, I'll be your cover car."

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