The federal government has established six levels of interoperability in public safety, via the SAFECOM program, ranging from “swap radios at the incident” (level 1) to “standards-based systems” (level 6).
While the SAFECOM spectrum of six levels is very useful for guiding policy, we generally design communication systems while considering four tiers, with each tier representing a specific type of mutual aid ranging from incidents that occur daily (or hourly) to incidents that occur every 10 or more years. Rather than describing the underlying technology, we use each tier to describe how often the incident is likely to occur (incident frequency) and how often the two (or more agencies) are likely to train together on the communications used in this type of incident.
For instance, we start with “operability” before interoperability, as required when two different agencies respond on nearly every call together, such as a city fire apparatus and a private company ambulance responding to an EMS call. They require the basic ability to communicate together (a.k.a. “operability”) even before we consider the next tier of interoperability.
The four tiers are:
- Operability (units respond together frequently almost as if they were a single agency; incident frequency is daily or more).
Example:sheriff’s deputy responds as cover for a state patrol trooper.
Example: city fire responding on an aid call with a private ambulance.
- Interoperability for Typical Incidents (units train together monthly or every other month, and respond together on an incident as often as weekly).
Example: structure fire calls for mutual aid from adjacent county or city.
- Interoperability for Rare Incidents (units train together once or twice a year, and respond to incident together annually or less)
Example: SWAT incident requires state patrol SWAT for backup after 12 hours.
Example: chain-reaction motor vehicle accident with more than 20 injured on state freeway adjacent to a rural town
- Interoperability for Extraordinary Incidents (training rarely occurs because the mutual aid comes from outside the state; incident frequency is a decade or more)
Example: Katrina –type disaster brings federal assets to the county.
As the scenario-based tiers illustrate, the communication system’s interoperability should anticipate each type of user, incident frequency, and user familiarity through training. The interoperability used in an extraordinary incident (Tier IV) where responders have little or no experience training together is almost completely different than the type of operability needed in every day incidents (Tier I). Many communication systems do not even implement Tier I, which misses the opportunity to improve the effectiveness of the response and at the same time limit or even reduce danger to first responders.
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