Public Safety & Homeland Security

Interoperability: What's Impeding a National Communications System?

People and governance challenges delay nationwide communications interoperability.

by Eric E. Holdeman / August 28, 2008

It's interesting how issues become "the thing" in government. Following 9/11, when fire and police agencies had no radio contact with one another, communications interoperability became a high, national-level priority.


So what's impeding the establishment of a national interoperable communications system? Let's explore the issues:


Governance: Our country's form of governance impacts many emergency management aspects, including communications interoperability. The U.S. map resembles 14th-century France, with political fiefdoms from one shining sea to the other. Just within King County, Wash., there are 39 cities and another 126 separate political jurisdictions, each with its own budget and priorities. There are 500 separately elected local officials in the county.


This means many agencies must communicate, including police, fire, public works and transportation organizations, plus volunteer organizations that provide human service functions. For everyday activities, some excellent cross-jurisdictional coordination and communications may happen by phone or radio. Typically this occurs with adjoining neighbor-to-neighbor emergencies. Larger, regional incidents may require a broader multijurisdictional or multidisciplinary approach. This is when a more unified communications approach is needed.


It requires agencies to discard their desire for a customized system. It can happen. Large multicounty and statewide radio systems are being planned and built, which requires a collaborative spirit - but can only be done if there are willing partners.



Size: The larger a jurisdiction, the less need for cross-discipline and cross-jurisdictional communications since it can handle most incidents with internal resources. Fire and police departments have dive, hazardous materials and marine units; though I've never seen a fire department bomb squad, I wouldn't be surprised if one exists.


Since larger agencies don't routinely share or request resources from smaller agencies and jurisdictions, they become "self-contained" and may feel they don't need to coordinate or talk with anyone else.


It's also difficult for larger agencies to subordinate their interests to another agency or jurisdiction. They don't need to compromise on issues like equipment and characteristics. Therefore, when given the choice, they'll do it their way and tell others to come along - or find their own solution.



Control:A handheld radio can cost several thousand dollars. Yet even with high costs, many jurisdictions are reluctant to partner to buy common systems. The Department of Homeland Security made progress on this issue by requiring regional solutions for regional problems. Still, jurisdictions can find ways to have a common system and yet not talk to one another. They do this by limiting access to talk groups in trunked radio systems. People want to feel like they have control of their operations and aren't subordinating their agency's or jurisdiction's work to others.



People: The common thread in these issues is that it's people, not equipment or technology, who are the problem. Communications interoperability will come when we have people and agency interoperability. You can't buy that - no matter how much money you throw at the problem.


Wake-up calls come in the form of disasters. Some learn from the experience; others will need the lessons repeated before they're willing to change.


How about you?