When my former agency switched to 800 MHz, we were excited about the change. Our officers would be safer, we would be able to hear them and they would be able to hear each other and us. The system also fit into the nation's plans about interoperability. Our emergency communications operators would be able to hit a few buttons and work with first responders in adjoining jurisdictions. As the kinks worked out, one issue stood out: how were the various agency dispatchers going to work together?
A strong trait found in most emergency communications operators is we like to be in control. Even if the situation is complete chaos, we organize and influence with the tone of our voices, our ability to multi-task and pull together the various elements necessary to make the scene a bit easier for everyone. What happens when a pursuit begins in one city, crosses jurisdictional lines and the radio button joining the two agencies is pushed? Who continues to rule the roost? Interoperability is more than a technological change. It is a change in ideology. One region has embraced this ideology.
The Hampton Roads area in southeastern Virginia is the fourth largest metropolitan region in the southeastern U.S. with a population of 1.6 million. Hampton Roads is home to 17 cities and counties, a dozen military installations, the third largest port in the country, eight colleges and universities, and two federal laboratories. This diversity carries over into the area's law enforcement, requiring federal, state and municipal officers to work together. In light of this, professionals from a variety of the area's disciplines and jurisdictions came together to improve their ability to work together seamlessly.
"In every major national event, the first thing critiqued is communication," says Terry Hall, Emergency Communications Manager for York County/Poquoson. "In Oklahoma City and 9-11, Hurricane Katrina and others, communications has been a major issue." In response, York/Poquoson County and James City County joined forces and established a compatible radio system. The system also has the ability to allow buy-ins from other agencies guaranteeing continual growth and increased interoperability. Currently, the Motorola Simulcast Astro Digital P25 radio system consists of nine towers with five more coming on line with the inclusion of Gloucester County and twenty radio channels. These channels are always live and don't require a dispatcher to patch anyone in. "True interoperability is the ability to talk just the way you do on your cell," Hall explains. "You pick the radio up and you turn a knob and communicate in real time without a dispatcher, without a command center."
To accomplish this interoperability, the first of its kind in the nation, York/Poquoson and James City County established a governance structure which allowed input from everyone from the highest government official to the rookie on the street. "We had on the floor, fire, police and EMS telling us what their needs were," says Hall. "Needs are different than 15 years ago when the chief was out there." This governance structure helped alleviate the politics which often plague multi-jurisdictional and multi-discipline efforts. The founding fathers of this effort stripped aside politics and allowed the important issue to stand on its own: communication. The agencies joined their ideas and their money, using grants from all the agencies to purchase the equipment and software they needed to benefit everyone in the area. "When we took this to them, we told them we could save billions of dollars," Hall explains. "The politics were left at the door 100%. Everyone had ownership. Everyone had buy-in. Each agency was taken care of and treated fairly." Due to this, the effort has grown from the original two agencies and now includes the Colonial National Park System, the College of William and Mary, the City of Williamsburg police and fire departments, Gloucester County and Anheuser-Busch security. Recently, a joint effort initiated a partnership with the City of Virginia Beach to link into their Overlay Regional Interoperability Network (ORION), a back-up 700 MHz system.
Along with the radio system, York/Poquoson County, James City County and the City of Williamsburg have interoperable Emergency Communications Centers (ECC) as well. If one of the agencies' 9-1-1 system goes down, all they need to do is make a phone call and the other agency types in a password and takes over the calls until the down agency arrives. "This layout between James City and York is the most unique that I've seen in 27 years," Julie McKercher, Director of the ECC in James City says. "The way it is set up between these three agencies, we have everything we need. We have all our creature comforts from the moment we walk into their door, except our basic records keeping management system. That is the only piece which keeps us from being 100% redundant."
The York/Poquoson and James City County ECC have identical layouts. "We have eight positions within our center and our minimal manning level is four," McKercher says. "Typically we only occupy half the office on a given day. If there is an event, they get half our office and vice versa." York/Poquoson County has been at James City County once, James City came to York/Poquoson three times, and the City of Williamsburg has been at York/Poquoson three times as well. Whether the move is due to a critical incident at the ECC or just for routine maintenance and upgrades, the ability of these ECCs to keep their 9-1-1 and dispatch services seamless is a model to agencies around the nation. Implementation of Next Generation 9-11 (NG911), interoperable CAD and the ability to receive text and video data from wireless phones is part of the continued upgrade of this system. "The 9-1-1 Communication Center of the future will be a center which will be so technologically advanced, it will be a data control center," Hall says.
The Hampton Roads area has become a leader demonstrating diverse agencies can work together in the board room, the briefing room and the radio room. As agencies across the nation struggle with budget restraints, out-dated equipment and federal requirements, a quick look at how these agencies are working together could set in motion a new generation of cooperation and coordination. Interoperability is a necessity. A glance at the Hampton Roads area shows it's not just a dream. It can work. It does work. It will save lives.