Public safety veterans and communications
experts marvel at the visibility "interoperability" has earned during the last
several years. With the help of the media and politicians, even the general
public knows the basics of the problem, usually expressed as "police can't talk
At National Interop we will point out the
obvious: there are at least three significant challenges not yet met by most
public safety agencies:
- Interoperable radio equipment
- Defined procedures for when and how to
- Training for line personnel in the
equipment and procedures.
Although every agency faces their own unique
issues, we generally recommend the following steps to address interoperability
-- while respecting the constraint of funding.
In the wake of repeated failures of
communication systems to provide interoperability between responders at an
incident, increased attention (and federal funding) has been focused on
interoperability. In the first wave of funding this emphasized equipment,
specifically two types of equipment: the interoperability gateway
and the P25 digital radio.
We applaud both of these efforts, as they are
necessary steps in the right direction. Getting all first responders on a single
standard for a field radio (the P25 digital
standard) is a great idea.
Interoperability gateways can be powerful tools, and those too are a good
idea, but we have also found them to be harmful when not used correctly. More on
that in a moment.
The long-term objectives for interoperability
include integrated systems that provide inherent interoperability, based on the
P25 digital standard. This too is a worthwhile objective, but in our experience
is not practical for most of the jursdictions in the United States because it is
an unfunded mandate. Simply put, the systems proposed to date are massively
expensive and beyond the reach of many local and state agencies. The early
examples include New York State's $2B system and Florida's $1B system.
What's the alternative?
IP Radio for Affordable
IP Radio is an ideal approach to the
interoperability equipment challenge: it is backwards compatible with older
equipment already installed (and purchased long ago), it is forwards compatible
with emerging technologies such as digital trunking. It can be configured to
offer patches between various users, either permanently or temporarily, and it
is inherently scalable. The same software technology can be deployed to support
a statewide system with thousands of users, or a city-wide system with 50 users.
Just as IP Radio can provide incremental
improvement to geographic coverage
for an existing 911 radio system, IP Radio can also give dispatchers and
EOC managers instantly available
talk (or just listen) access to interoperable radios.
We also like to recommend IP Radio for
interoperability because it doesn’t preclude any other interoperability
initiatives at a regional, state or even national level, but it also permits an
agency to become more effective immediately, controlling their own destiny.
We know of a number of agencies with expensive,
fully implemented communications systems (often on 800 MHz analog and digital
trunking) that support rich interoperability … but never use it.
Examples include: trunking systems that support
instant patches at the dispatch console by the dispatcher; field radios that
permit line officers to switch to the working channel of another agency with the
flick of a switch or turn of a knob. Neither is used.
Surely part of the challenge is cultural, but
as with any other piece of equipment in the practice of a profession, the use of
communication devices demands procedures and training.
Written and considered standard operating
procedures (“SOP”) rarely exist for interoperable equipment. The manufacturer's
documentation isn't even a good starting point -- that would be as if the
owner's manual of a new sedan was handed to police officers as the SOP for
pursuit and emergency vehicle operations.
Early federal funding actually prohibited
expenditure on training for the new (and often complex) interoperability
equipment, and although that limitation has been recognized, even today there is
not a single accredited or even popularly recognized training course for
interoperable communications techniques used by responders.
While APCO and others have long assumed the
lead in training for dispatchers and other communication professionals, there is
no training course we can find anywhere on the specific topic of
National Interop offers such
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