Can You Hear Me Now?

Several years ago, as a dispatcher on Phoenix's west side, my telephone rang. An off-duty Phoenix officer was behind a stolen vehicle. He had tried to clear over his portable radio, but, as was common with the old 450s, I wasn't able to hear him, his transmission lost somewhere in the land of missing radio communications. I copied the information and repeated it over my frequency. I continued to relay for several minutes, but then things got complicated. The vehicle would soon cross Camelback Road. We were going into another city, Glendale. This posed a problem because Phoenix officers were unable to talk to Glendale officers. I had to put my officer on hold and call Glendale dispatch. Then, the Glendale dispatcher took the information I gave her over the phone and relayed it to her officers over the radio. So, I was talking to a Phoenix officer on the phone, giving his information to Phoenix officers over the radio, as well as giving the information to a Glendale dispatcher over another phone line, who was in turn repeating the information to Glendale officers over their radio (take a breath). Unfortunately, this scenario is not uncommon. And, it can get much more tragic.

In 1995, in the aftermath of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, firefighters believed a second bomb existed. Fire dispatchers communicated this, as well as instructions to evacuate, over the fire radio. But these instructions did nothing to warn the police officers inside the building who were using another frequency. Runners were used to communicate between agencies. Runners were also used after the 1999 Columbine school shooting where 46 agencies with predominately incompatible radio systems assisted. And, in an especially tragic example of how deadly radio incompatibility can be, the Honorable Deborah J. Daniels, Assistant Attorney General, stated in 2003,

One tragic example is the September 11th terrorist attack in New York City. While police and firefighters rushed up the stairs of the burning World Trade Center buildings, incident commanders outside could hear helicopter radio reports that the towers were dangerously close to collapse.

They were able to warn their police officers via radio to vacate the buildings immediately. As a result, all but 60 officers escaped with their lives. Tragically, hundreds of New York firefighters couldn't hear that warning because they were using a different radio communications system. 343 firefighters died in the World Trade Center terrorist attack that terrible day.

Although much has changed in the way law enforcement does business post-9-11, some things remain the same. After Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast in 2005, Osceola (MI) Undersheriff Dave Fowler, one of numerous officers who assisted, stated the greatest law enforcement need after a disaster is communications. "Even the 9-11 Commission listed inoperable communication as one of the major downfalls of multiple agencies working together. We saw it [in New Orleans]. The enormity of Katrina really emphasized it and brought it home. Inoperable communications would be the number one problem facing officers." So, the problems facing emergency responders in 1995 still faced them in 1999, then in 2001, and again in 2005. How many times can the tragedy of radio inoperability prove itself before things change? As dispatchers, how long will we be expected to relay information in antiquated ways while praying we get the information out to everyone who needs it before someone gets hurt? Fortunately, it appears agencies are beginning to do something about radio incompatibility issues.

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."