A History of Public-Safety Interoperability
Wednesday, September 07, 2011 | Comments
 
 
“On September 11, the nation suffered the largest loss of life — 2,973 — on its soil as a result of hostile attack in its history. The Fire Department of New York (FDNY) suffered 343 fatalities — the largest loss of life of any emergency response agency in history,” according to “9/11 Commission Report.”
 
MissionCritical Communications asked five public-safety experts for their views on the critical issues related to interoperability in a 9/11 Special Report in the September issue. Following are details on how public-safety interoperability has evolved in recent history from Marilyn Ward, executive director, National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC).
 
A lack of interoperability was identified as an impairment to multidiscipline and/or multijurisdictional incidents for many years, dating back to the 1970s wildfires in the Western states, particularly California, with many incidents through the mid-1990s being identified in the work of the PSWAC Interoperability Committee. During the two years subsequent to 9/11, with funding from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the National Task Force on Interoperability (NTFI), a group of 18 major associations for local and state elected and appointed officials and public-safety officers, met and published the brochure “When They Can’t Talk, Lives Are Lost,” an educational document targeted at elected and appointed officials. One of the important outcomes of NTFI was, for the first time, a definition of interoperability:
 
“Interoperability is the ability for emergency responders to communicate across disciplines, jurisdictions and levels of government via radio communication systems — to exchange voice and/or data with one another on demand, in real time, when needed, and as authorized.”
 
Much of the initial interoperability work was done by the Department of Justice (DOJ) Office for Domestic Preparedness (ODP), later moved to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through its RapidCom program, which employed a number of subject matter experts (SMEs) with significant local/state public-safety experience. Among other initiatives, RapidCom sent teams of communications specialists to major metropolitan areas and conducted exercises to measure the effectiveness with which local agencies established operational-level communications within an hour after an incident occurred.
 
These exercises began to highlight the fact that interoperability wasn’t just impaired by a lack of compatible technology. There were many other — often more important — reasons. While the initial response of elected officials to the interoperability crisis, generally at the national level within Congress, was to provide money for technology (primarily gateways or audio bridges), it became clear that interoperability was more complex than just technology; it had critical management and operational components as well.
 
In conjunction with the work of ODP, and as a follow-on to the work of NTFI, many of those same 18 NTFI organizations, and some others, became the core of the Safecom executive committee, with Safecom being revitalized as a government initiative within the executive branch of the federal government. Safecom, through its Executive Committee and later emergency response council, a local/state group of public-safety SMEs assumed a critical leadership role, advising DHS and recommending priorities and programs for local/state/federal interoperability.
 
Work on the most significant interoperability publication from DHS that finally captured its overall complexities began in June 2004 and was fielded in 2005. The Safecom interoperability continuum was initially developed by a core group of SMEs and a talented graphics arts organization. It was then vetted across the entire public-safety communications community and adjusted to meet the overall picture presented by this larger group. The continuum portrays interoperability as opportunity along five lanes, all of which are required for interoperability to be successful: governance, SOPs, technology, training and exercises, and use, with a progression from a minimal level of interoperability to optimum interoperability depending on where an agency lands on each of those five lanes. Inherent across all of these lanes is the importance of building relationships among agencies, and across regions and states. With minimal changes/updates during the subsequent six years, the continuum is the basis for, or background document upon which, many interoperability grants and programs are based or scored in the United States. It has taken on an international flavor with versions in multiple languages appearing on five of the world’s seven continents.
 
While many of the initial efforts involving Safecom were coordinated through the DHS Office of Interoperability and Compatibility (OIC), later legislation established the DHS Office of Emergency Communications (OEC), which assumed a significant role in providing education, grant guidance and outreach to local/state government. Safecom now supports both of these organizations and they, in turn, support Safecom in a remarkable partnership to the benefit of responders at all levels of government.
 
Following are several articles on interoperability:
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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