Emergency Responders Need Equipment Compatibility, DHS Official Says

Emergency communications suffers from conflicting technology, lack of agency collaboration.

by / March 9, 2009

The question from the 1984 Ghostbusters film -- "Who ya gonna call?" -- is a loaded one around here. One of my jobs as the director of the Command, Control and Interoperability Division at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Directorate for Science and Technology is to ensure that our heroes -- emergency responders -- can talk to one another. The buzzword is interoperability. I hear it daily, and there's no question it's critically important.

There's also no doubt in my mind that interoperable technologies already exist. Of course, we can spend years making them better, faster and more powerful than ever before, but here's the reality: We can buy technology that meets most of our needs now, while we continue to work on making the better stuff available. However, before we can begin implementing the technology, we must face a bigger issue: cultural differences.


The Human Factor

Some emergency response agencies remain rooted in turf battles that make collaboration nearly impossible, while other agencies simply don't consider collaboration in their planning. Without collaboration, interoperability can't occur. Command structures, procedures, protocols and shared agreements must be established among regional agencies for responders to provide swift, coordinated support during incidents.

As we know all too well, a lack of communications interoperability has plagued the emergency response community for decades. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, many responder agencies told the government that they couldn't communicate with responders from other agencies. This problem came to light once again following 9/11. In the following months, unions representing New York firefighters cited inadequacies in the emergency radio communications network as a major contributing factor in the death of more than 100 firefighters. Having failed to find a way to communicate with his on-site commander, a firefighter trapped in one of the towers was forced to call home and beg his wife to phone his firehouse and communicate his location to incident command. The scale of the 9/11 attacks raised the issue of communications interoperability to a national level not seen before. In these incidents, equipment incompatibility was only part of the problem. Far bigger issues were of a more human nature.

In crises requiring multiple response agencies -- including fire, police and emergency medical services -- the questions are fundamental: Is there a standard operating procedure for the communications equipment being used? Has the equipment ever been used and tested? Have all responding practitioners been trained on the technologies? Have there previously been practice exercises among the agencies involved? Do responders from these agencies know the governance procedures -- who can talk with whom, when, where and on what frequencies? Is there a common language being used? (For example, "10-6" may mean "I copy" to one agency, and "officer down" to another.)

Each of these questions relates to human interactions in the field, and each becomes an area of concern before the first boot hits the ground. Every argument, from "I'm not going to have that cell tower put up in my backyard," to "My team doesn't talk to the fire chief's team," to "We never had the money in our community budget to buy new radios," serves as a major roadblock to interoperability. More importantly, human interactions can significantly impact the way an incident response plays out. Without unified efforts and support within and among participating agencies, response won't improve.


A Bottom-Up Approach

We advocate a bottom-up approach to addressing and strengthening communications interoperability nationwide. In other words, the federal government can't and won't mandate how a state or local community organizes incident response activities. Those decisions are best left

to the community itself because it knows best what it needs. What we can do is lay out a road map, based on experience and best practices, whereby issues related to technology, standard operating procedures, training, exercises, governance and equipment usage can be shared with the emergency response community. The Department of Homeland Security's Office of Interoperability and Compatibility is doing just this by providing guiding principles that may help solve an individual community's problems, depending on that community's budget, manpower, need and other factors.

In this vein, we asked the emergency response community to help us develop solutions, including a strategic approach described in the Interoperability Continuum, is a tool that helps response agencies and policymakers plan and implement solutions. The continuum also serves as a guide to help agencies reach optimal levels of communications interoperability. This tool emphasizes that all critical elements of interoperability must be addressed together to develop a sophisticated solution. Even more importantly, this approach represents the combined wisdom of emergency responders at all government levels nationwide.


Improving the Technology

Outside of frameworks and strategies, we are working directly with emergency responders to identify the capabilities they need and with industry leaders to ensure that developing technologies meet those needs. We're currently partnering with manufacturers to demonstrate the first portable multiband radio (MBR) prototype. The MBR will let responders communicate with other agencies regardless of the radio band on which they operate. Equal in cost, size and weight to existing portable radios, the MBR provides the nation's responders with cutting-edge communications capabilities.

While we're making great strides in strengthening communications interoperability, all the goblins won't be tackled immediately. We have only to recall our great U.S. interstate highway system: Once it was decided upon, it was built almost immediately, but it took 40 years for us to agree on signage from state to state.

We aim to do better than that.

David Boyd Contributing Writer
David Boyd is director of the Command, Control and Interoperability Division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Directorate for Science and Technology.