Interoperability Requires More Than New Equipment

July 2006
By Rita Boland

Planning methodology developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under the Safecom program assists states in developing first responder communications interoperability plans that start with input at the local level.
Through cooperation and planning, federal program uses lowest level approach first to create joint communications.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is using a bottom-up technique to protect the nation by working with local first responders to develop standards and a way for jurisdictions to communicate with one another. Under the Safecom initiative, the department is helping states develop strategic plans to improve statewide interoperable communications.

Safecom aims at improving public safety response through more effective and efficient interoperable wireless communications. It became an immediate priority when the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, placed a spotlight on emergency communications operability failures.

Dr. David Boyd, director of interoperability and compatibility in the science and technology division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), explains that when the terrorists attacked, personnel from various agencies were able to communicate more effectively in Washington, D.C., than in New York City. That difference was the result of a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments effort to improve first responder interoperability after Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the Potomac River in 1982. Despite the amount of time that has passed since both those tragedies, Boyd says communications interoperability is still far from being a reality. “Nationwide interoperability remains a major problem because an agency in one community—whether it’s a police, a fire or a medical agency—in many cases can’t communicate with an adjacent agency,” he says.

Boyd continues that technology is only a small part of the problem. “We can in fact achieve interoperability now with what technology we have, adding very little else,” he states. “In most cases, we don’t even have to get any new equipment.”

The hard parts, he emphasizes, are getting elements such as standard operating procedures into place that outline who is in charge and how jurisdictions will work together as well as developing the concept of operations. In addition, agencies need to train and exercise their staff to set up and use their interoperable communications systems, and they must make it an integral part of what they do through regular training.

However, even when all those pieces are in place—technology, standard operating procedures and training—the most difficult aspect of implementation still remains. “The last and toughest of all the lanes to address is governance,” Boyd says. “That is, are the agencies, the leadership in the agencies and the political leadership in the community willing to make agreements that they will work together? Will they share where they have to in order to establish interoperability?”

He recounts when he helped establish an interoperability program in San Diego County. It took 30 days to implement the technology and two years for all the agencies to come to agreement on procedures.

To reduce governance problems and address other issues with communications interoperability, the DHS developed the Safecom model to begin working on communications interoperability at the community level and expand it from there. “Ultimately, that’s where we need to achieve interoperability because in the middle of an emergency those are the people who are going to have to respond first,” Boyd notes.

The department works with localities to provide them with the tools necessary to promote cooperation and to create agreements with adjacent jurisdictions so that they can identify technology solutions that are appropriate for their circumstances. Also, the DHS helps the local agencies develop plans to conduct exercises.

One of the department’s major efforts is the Statewide Communications Interoperability Planning (SCIP) methodology. The technique describes a step-by-step process for designing locally driven strategic communications plans. It was developed after the DHS assisted the commonwealth of Virginia in establishing its plan. “We basically took the Virginia plan, put together everything required to put it together, created that plan and then published it as a guide, as a manual to all the states in the United States,” Boyd explains.

Virginia officials invited the federal government to the commonwealth to help them develop a workable interoperable communications plan. The commonwealth had a plan developed by state agencies at the state level. However, local jurisdictions were not involved in the planning and did not agree to participate. In addition, the state agencies could not get backing in the state legislature because the delegates and senators consulted with the agencies they represent locally and those agencies did not support using the plan. Without constituency support for the planning, the elected officials did not vote for it. Boyd asserts this is a common problem. “There are some 17 states in the United States that have statewide plans, and in most of those states the only people on the statewide system are the state police,” he says.

To remedy the problem in Virginia, planners from the DHS worked with state officials such as Chris Essid, commonwealth interoperability coordinator, to develop a strategy that was acceptable to all jurisdictions. They traveled throughout the state, starting in Wytheville, and obtained input from local agencies about what they needed and desired in a state plan. The result was the Virginia SCIP, which all local jurisdictions signed.

Essid thinks that having Safecom assist in the process was a boon for the commonwealth because the program developed the local-level methodology. He also believes it lent the effort credibility. “One of the major roles that they [DHS] played was someone who didn’t really have a stake in the game,” Essid notes. “They were a neutral party. They really could go between the local and state entities and mediate. I think that gained a lot of trust from all of the participants.”

One big benefit of the bottom-up methodology according to Essid is that planners do not have to guess about how to improve interoperability; they receive input directly from the people in the field. To remain current with first responders, Virginia updates its plan annually and will employ the third version of the plan in fiscal year 2007.

Since initiating its communications plan, Virginia and jurisdictions within the commonwealth have obtained millions of dollars in grants based on their ability to prove interoperability. For example, the commonwealth allocated $734,000 of grant funding to support the 10 initiatives in the 2006 Virginia SCIP. Also, $2 million in commonwealth grants are going to 38 localities for homeland security grant funding. “It’s really an exciting process because just like the strategic plan was developed listening to first responders, these responders were the same ones reviewing the plans for these grant funds,” Essid explains.

Safecom aims to improve first responder interoperable communications not only through better technology but also by addressing coordination and governance problems.
In addition to funds, Virginia has dedicated time and resources to improving communications interoperability among emergency personnel. Essid’s role is a full-time permanent position in the governor’s office dedicated to communications interoperability issues. The commonwealth also has a state interoperability executive committee that has support from the governor and various public safety associations.

With all the work put into improving communications sharing, Essid’s experiences have led him to conclusions similar to Boyd’s. Namely, Essid estimates 10 percent of the interoperability problem to be technological and the other 90 percent related to coordination. He explains that Virginia has more than $1 billion in communications technologies, and cooperative outreach such as increased coordination through the executive committee and grants will go further in improving interoperability.

However, what Virginia does need are systems that can communicate with other, different systems. “One thing I think could really help everybody is if DHS and Safecom could come up with open architecture interoperability standards for public safety,” Essid states. Vendors influence what public safety agencies purchase, and proprietary systems prevent radios from communicating on the same band, he continues. “That in my mind is ridiculous,” Essid says. “We need someone to take a stand and say these are the requirements.”

He illustrates his point by asking police officers and sheriffs if they would feel safe if their revolvers did not work in other jurisdictions. In terms of interoperable communications, this is the problem facing many first responders today, he says. “That’s sort of what your public safety folks have to deal with all the time,” Essid maintains.

The Safecom program is working with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to create manufacturer standards requiring interoperability capabilities in new equipment. This initiative, called Program 25, defines a suite of standards for a digital wireless radio communications system to be used by the public safety community.

For now, technological items such as patches and voice over Internet protocol can alleviate some of the communications problems. But even when the technologies can reach one another, other communications problems arise. For instance, police agencies use different Ten signals such as 10-4, and in a multiple-jurisdiction response, that could cause problems. One example is a situation in which an officer used the code for a traffic incident and another jurisdiction interpreted the same message as “officer needs assistance.” Essid says the emergency response community tells him they really need a set of common language protocols where instead of using codes, responders could simply state their needs. For situations requiring codes, a standard set would provide emergency personnel with a valuable tool.

Despite these shortcomings, Essid still feels that overall the Safecom process has received positive results and feedback from Virginia emergency responders. “I would recommend this to any state that was looking at an interoperability plan to involve your first responders,” Essid says. “The information you get out of this is incredibly valuable.”

Other states have used the Safecom SCIP methodology to implement their communications interoperability plans. After the Virginia process, Congress asked Safecom to execute two additional pilots—one in Nevada and the other in Kentucky. Both states provided opportunities to test the applicability of the SCIP methodology in areas with challenges that differ from those in Virginia. Nevada is considered a high-risk area because Las Vegas is close to nuclear storage facilities, the terrain varies from flat desert to high mountains and big cities are separated from small communities by federally owned property. “That made it kind of a unique environment to test the methodology and see if it would work,” Boyd says.

The Nevada process was successful. The plan is complete and will be published soon. “Let me emphasize when we say we’ve finished, we don’t develop their plan, we just work with them,” Boyd explains. “They develop their own plan. We kind of function as facilitators, as technical consultants, as guides to do that.”

In Kentucky, the challenges included two major airports and a combination of urban environments and rolling terrain in the west and rough terrain in the east. It also has 120 relatively small counties. The plan there is about two-thirds finished and should be completed soon. “We will then take the lessons that come out of Nevada and Kentucky, modify the materials and provide that to the field,” Boyd says.

In addition to the SCIP methodology, other Safecom projects include establishing interoperability among federal agencies in key urban areas in the 25 Cities Program. Safecom also developed the Statement of Requirements (SoR) for Wireless Public Safety Communications and Interoperability. The SoR is the first attempt to identify public safety requirements including police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel in a single place and to determine the communications capabilities they require to do their jobs.

Another initiative is the national baseline survey, which polls 37,000 public safety agencies of all types about communications interoperability. The first report of survey results is expected in August. “It’s crucial because that tells us where we need to be targeting our resources at the national level, where the real holes are,” Boyd states. “It also gives us a baseline so we can measure our progress.”

Even with all the initiatives underway and the interoperable communications technology available now, Boyd warns that true interoperability among emergency personnel is a distant goal. The military has been trying to create interoperability among four services in a single department—the U.S. Defense Department—for almost 40 years. In the public safety arena, Safecom is trying to link from 50,000 to 80,000 agencies in different jurisdictions. “I think it’s important to understand how hard it is and how long it’s likely to take to achieve full-blown interoperability,” Boyd says.

Still, Boyd believes Safecom has the right formula to move the process forward—start at the local level, build up and take into account all of the elements in the interoperability continuum. “Technology by itself is not going to solve the problem,” Boyd notes.


Web Resources
Safecom program:
Interoperability in Virginia:
U.S. Department of Homeland Security:
Kentucky Office of Homeland Security:


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