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Let's Do An Exercise! Ok How Do We Include Communications?

Author: Nick Brown, Statewide Interoperable Communication Coordinator, Georgia Emergency Management Agency/Homeland Security

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2013-01-31
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It was less than a dozen years ago when Interoperable Communications became the new buzz phrase following the terrible attacks in New York City, Washington, DC and Shanksville, PA.  Although public safety first responders throughout the nation had commonly struggled over communicating between neighboring jurisdictions (and often within their own agencies), it wasn’t until the attacks in 2001 that this ongoing problem was given a name. 

The challenge of interoperable communications was then brought into sharp focus and, with grant funds flowing like a fire hose master stream, agencies began purchasing solutions that vendors said would solve their communication problems.  Grant-funded assets such as Mobile Communication Vehicles (MCVs) and gateway devices like the ACU-1000, RIOS, and Motobridge became common at all levels of public safety. 

Let’s be honest: over several years we all purchased things that made us look like we could save the day but in reality the day would come where we would each face a situation in which we had to make this equipment operate the way it was designed to.  Ask yourself, “Is the guy who drives the MCV just a driver or can he really operate the equipment on board?  Can the radio operator in dispatch really patch our channel to our neighbor’s channel when we have that high-speed chase tomorrow? “   The answers to those questions may shed some light on how far we’ve come with technology but how far behind we potentially are with the necessary hands on training and operational capabilities.

Public safety agencies are very efficient with routinely conducting exercises that test various response components.  By simulating the required response mechanisms, law enforcement agencies can chase bank robbers and rescue hostages with the help of SWAT, fire agencies can extinguish the biggest of fires or control the nastiest hazmat spills, and even EMS responders can triage and transport victims of a mass casualty event.  Without doubt, all of these exercises provide valuable training, and with a variety of injected surprise situations they can sometimes make operational personnel very busy as they try and handle real-to-life situations, but in some cases these exercises move in a “faster than real world” pace.  All the response functions of the exercise allow for evaluators to determine if effective coordination took place within the various emergency response levels but because the stride is much faster than it would be in a real response, communications can be easily overlooked or pushed aside.  Things such as a compressed response timelines or the ability to talk face-to-face make it difficult or impossible to fully utilize the types of radio communication that would be experienced in a real world response. 

Paulding County EMA and 911 MCV radio operators executing exercise tasks.  Left to right: Bree Laas, Communication Officer, Paulding County 911, Marlee Mcclure, Communication Officer, Paulding County 911, Christina Cooper, Deputy Director, Paulding County 911.

In Georgia we recognized the need to think outside the box and identified the need to evaluate the communications component the same way we evaluate the exercises; however we struggled with where to begin.  Understanding the need to design our future exercises with communications as the primary focus was one thing, but determining how to accomplish that was a challenge in itself. 

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In 2010 I had the opportunity to attend a multi-day statewide MCV exercise at Camp Blanding in Starke, FL where a task-based exercise approach was used.  The event’s concept focused on the ability of Communication Unit Leaders (COMLs) and MCV operators to perform various tasks using the equipment they had available.  Tasks included

Riley Land and David Hopkins testing the ACU-1000 and radio equipment in the Columbus Fire and Emergency Services Mobile Communication Vehicle

equipment set up, testing satellite and data systems, and radio patching, to name a few.  By eliminating the response-based scenario and mandating the completion of specific tasks, the MCVs were grouped in teams, each working under a COML, and the focus continually remained on the communication functions the exercise was intended to evaluate.  I was thoroughly impressed by the concept and envisioned it being a great solution for the problem we’d experienced in Georgia. 

Following the exercise I immediately asked for all of the documents that Florida was willing to share. Fortunately for us, Florida provided great resources to get us started.  Using their structure as the baseline for the exercise design, we worked to modify the concept to include more challenging and complex tasks making sure to include all aspects of MCV operations and personnel abilities as well as off site or fixed infrastructure resources.  The overall exercise effort was led by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency/Homeland Security (GEMA) with the support of the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), the research arm of Georgia Tech.  GTRI provided communication and engineering subject matter experts and logistical support staff to aid in the coordination of the exercise efforts.

Our first exercise was held in the fall of 2010 and included a wide range of vehicle sizes and capabilities.  The task-based structure included approximately 25 tasks that the MCV operators were asked to complete over an eight-hour period.  We found that throughout the operational period, equipment operators struggled with many of the tasks simply due to inexperience with operating the equipment needed to complete a given task.  Many of those challenges were overcome throughout the day but in the end, on average only about 15 of the 25 assigned tasks were completed.  Most of the contributing factors included inadequate training or lack of familiarization with operating the various communication components and systems.

To date, eight MCV exercises have taken place in Georgia.  Each exercise has including a repeat of previous tasks along with new tasks constantly introduced to increase the complexity of the efforts.  The findings show that by challenging MCV operators with realistic operational tasks in an exercise environment, they then have the ability to return to their agency and seek the training or time required to understand the full operational capabilities of each component within their MCV.  Upon their return to subsequent exercises, they are then more familiar with what is required to complete the repeated tasks and can in most cases complete the task with no obstacles or delays and also attempt or complete the new tasks that have been introduced.    

Personnel discussing current exercise objectives within the Environmental Protection Agency vehicle.

Operable and interoperable communication has and will remain a constant challenge because of evolving technology, personnel turnover, and other factors at the local, state, and federal levels.  All of these dynamics make any exercise or training opportunity involving a communication component even more important.  Most public safety disciplines have yearly training requirements they must meet in order to maintain certification.  Why should one of the most important tools used to do our job, our radios, take a backseat or be overlooked until it’s too late and lives or property are lost simply because someone couldn’t communicate?

The state of Georgia has been very fortunate to maintain great relationships with our public safety counterparts in Florida and throughout the nation.  These relationships have allowed for excellent information-sharing opportunities and the exchanging of ideas to develop strong interoperable communication exercises and training concepts.  As rebanding and narrowbanding are words that hopefully will become obsolete in 2013 and Public Safety Broadband becomes the new buzz phrase, we must continue to stress the importance of basic two-way voice communication – specifically interoperable communications – as a critical tool used by public safety first responders. We must also continue to expand our comprehensive exercise or training concepts and we’ll find, as with all other public safety aspects, personnel will be better prepared to ensure adequate communication resources exist.

Nick Brown serves as the Statewide Interoperable Communications Coordinator (SWIC) for Georgia.  Working under the direction of Georgia Emergency Management Agency/Homeland Security, Nick oversees Georgia’s Statewide Communications Interoperability Plan (SCIP) which includes planning and implementation for governance, standard operating procedures, technology, training, exercise and usage of the various communication solutions throughout Georgia.  Nick is also the chairperson for the National Council of Statewide Interoperability Coordinators (NCSWIC) for the US Department of Homeland Security Region IV (Southeast United States).  Nick Brown can be contacted at nick.brown@gema.ga.gov

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