ORLANDO--During yesterday's keynote address by Gen. Richard B. Myers, the recently retired 15th Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials conference here, I thought of my father. He too is a retired serviceman, except from the Chicago Fire Department.

He started his career at Engine 104 battling warehouse fires in the city's south loop and ended it working high-rise fires and traffic accidents at Engine 8 in the city's Chinatown neighborhood.

My mother always worried the minute he left for work. She obsessively listened to WGN radio as she made dinner for my brother and me. If she heard a fire broke out in the city, her first concern was, which engine responded?

When I was about eight, my father's engine responded to a three-alarm fire in the city's warehouse district. My mother took my brother and me in the middle of the night -- still clad in our pajamas -- to the incident.

We could see my dad. He shouted orders at his team of firefighters moments before he disappeared into the smoke-filled entrance, a fire hose in tow. I remember my mother screamed in horror. It wasn't her proudest moment. But she knew the dangers he faced, and she had watched neighbors lose their husbands to the job.

That was more than 20 years ago, and much has changed since then. First responders today are facing unprecedented challenges including natural disasters of enormous magnitude -- such as last year's Hurricane Katrina -- flu pandemics and man-made terrorism acts. And as the daughter of a firefighter, I hope everything that can be done is being done on a local, state and federal level to keep those serving our communities safe by providing them with the most up-to-date procedures and technology.

Gen. Myers said the impact of violent extremists and weapons of mass destruction creates "tremendous challenges" for APCO attendees and the agencies they represent. He then asked, "How well are we prepared to deal with this?"

Not prepared enough. Interoperability is a major issue, and often it has very little to do with technology. Instead, planning is key, Gen. Myers said. He suggested local, state and national agencies review contingency plans and pre-determined assumptions. Resources may limit a full-scale exercise of these plans, he said. But he suggested a table-top discussion of the local and national agencies involved in disaster response -- including FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services -- to participate in scenario-driven discussions to "shore up" emergency response plans.

Yet, in the same vein, he admitted even with a national response plan, his department, the Department of Defense, was working blind during Hurricane Katrina. People at the top did not know their role or responsibility during the disaster, which left them unprepared. He blamed it on the fact they "never got to worst-case it," he said.

To avoid this, he suggested multiple agencies team up to work out a responsibility checklist. He said, "We need to know what to expect from agencies working alongside" first responders.

He made an important point, one shared by many APCO attendees: Interoperability is about people, planning and culture as much as it is about technology.

However, if the DOD is confused about what needs to be done during a natural or man-made disaster, can local and state agencies from Eureka to Miami come together to determine the steps needed to respond and save lives? Is a national response plan coupled with planning, standards and proper command-and-control communications under the umbrella of the federal government doable? Will this be enough to shore up interoperability issues?

First responders won't rest on their laurels while this is all figured out. They suit up, go to work and save lives. In the meantime, folks like the general talk in broad terms of interoperability and a cadre of vendors tout their newest communications systems.

Theory is one thing, however. Application is another. It is clear that interoperability still is easier said than done. That needs to change.

E-mail me at mroberts@mrtmag.com.