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Editor's Desk: Operational Interoperability

Author: Randall D. Larson

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2016-12-01
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This article was written in the far younger age of 2006 and published in our April issue of that year, as we approached the fifth anniversary of public safety’s darkest day. The term “operational interoperability” is one I have favored for many years, as it evokes more than just technological innovation, as I explain below. Another ten-and-a-half years have passed, and we’re still struggling with technological and operational concerns when it comes to different entities – field responders, Comm Center telecommunicators, tactical incident dispatchers, EOC personnel, and so on, from different agencies and in different places – being able to communicate during large incidents. While much progress has been made with conversion boxes and other devices, tactics, mandates, and the credible if seemingly slow-moving efforts of FirstNet, enabling true communications compatibility between diverse users continues to be an ongoing struggle among public safety agencies across North America. During all this development of equipment, plans, and protocols, I’ve always felt that one of the most important considerations with communications interoperability has been, and continues to be, in achieving workable – operational - between user and the communications interface. I thought taking a renewed look at my 2006 editorial musings might recapture some of these ideals – and furnish a reminder that the best solutions are not necessarily completely technological. – rdl 12/1/2016

We’ve annually recognized Sept. 11, 2001, as the worst day in public safety, a humbling anniversary but one that cries out for evaluation of what we’ve learned – technologically, operationally, and governmentally – in the years since. The biggest buzzword to have come out of 9/11, communications-wise, is still with us, bellowing like an unheard emergency call: Interoperability.

Recognition of the shortfalls in communications have led to a number of technological improvements from a variety of manufacturers – from broad network solutions to those portable “black boxes” that patch frequencies together in the field. The Department of Homeland Security has assumed the lead role in our War Against Non-Interoperability, but it’s been a slow train coming. Not six months ago we saw cooperating agencies in our national response to Hurricane Katrina who still couldn’t communicate. Despite great progress, clearly there are still huge levee breaks in establishing true interoperability.

Almost all of the focus in making interoperability happen has been with technological solutions having to do with connectivity of disparate radio systems. That’s been all fitting and proper, but there’s another factor that’s every bit as important as those black boxes and networks, and that’s the human factor. In our rush to integrate frequencies and allow everyone to be heard by everyone else out of the same speaker, it’s been overlooked that someone has to listen to that radio and manage, document, and respond to all of those interoperable transmissions. Simply putting all the fish into the same barrel may not be the best solution, especially when they’re trying to talk at the same time.

Back in the early 1970s the newly-developed Incident Command System (ICS) identified the concept of integrated communications as an answer to the problem of too many units trying to talk on the same radios – and of disparate agencies not being able to intercommunicate when working together. ICS proffered less of a technological solution than an organizational one: the integration of separate channels, coordinated by operational function and managed by a communications hub – either a dispatch center or an incident communications unit in the field – the concept of communications management became part and parcel of ICS – which we now know as NIMS, the National Incident Management System.

Networks and patches can indeed make interoperability happen, but that doesn’t make it functional. Technology can make almost anything work, but it can’t necessarily make it workable in an operational environment. The notion of communications management has to go along with those technological solutions, and that means including the skills of the communicator as the hub of emergency communications.

“Interoperability” alone is an ineffective solution. I prefer the term “Operational interoperability” because it incorporates both the technological and the human factors, essential partnerships between equipment and operator, responders and communicators, and all the collaborators who have a part in disaster operations and support. These are the kind of partnerships that will achieve true operational interoperability and allow all of these connected communications to be effectively managed and coordinated during major incident operations.

9-1-1 Magazine Editor Randall Larson retired in 2009 after 25 years as a communications supervisor and Field Communications Director for the San Jose Fire Department, with prior experience as a law enforcement dispatcher for the cities of San Jose and Mountain View, California.  Larson has been a Field Communications instructor for First Contact 9-1-1, the California Fire Chiefs Association – Communications Section, and other organizations, and was a Communications Specialist for FEMA’s California US&R Task Force 3. Since retirement, Larson continues to participate in the annual California Mobile Command Center Rallies, which he founded in 2009, and is a busy writer in several fields of interest.

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