Last week, in a webinar hosted by IWCE’s Urgent Communications and sponsored by Avtec—click here to view the archived event—panelists discussed the current state of interoperable communications in the U.S., which often are found lacking. Indeed, first responders complained about interoperability issues in the aftermath of the recent Washington Navy Yard shootings, according to several media reports.

The situation appears to be widespread, even though it has been more than two decades since the advent of the Project 25 standard—created, in part, to foster interoperability—and a dozen years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an event that placed interoperability shortcomings in a harsh light.

Panelists were united in their belief that politics and funding issues are the primary obstacles standing in the way of interoperable communications, wherever they do not exist.

According to Terry Hall, chief of emergency communications for York County, Va., and the immediate past president of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO), spoke about the “turf wars” that often ensue.

“Who talks where—that’s the number one when you’re looking at doing anything right now with interoperability,” Hall said. “[And] who owns what … I have a fairly large regional system, and what you run into is, who get the key, and who gets what talk groups.”

Hall told of a plan that he developed that would have resulted in some of the channels from the statewide radio system being programmed into York County radios and vice versa—but politics prevented it from happening.

 “So, here I’ve got a $60 million investment and the state has a $250 million investment, and the only way we can communicate with each other is through NPSPAC channels that have very limited coverage, instead of talking on the system real and live. And that’s pure politics—it has nothing to do with the functionality of the radio.”

According to Barbara Jaeger—911 administrator for the state of Arizona and the immediate past president of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA)—interoperability is just as crucial on  the 911 side of first response as it is on the radio side.

“If a call cannot be answered by the primary PSAP [public-safety answering point], and it has to be rotated to another PSAP—how do you handle those calls? What happens when a call is received by an agency that has no [such] capability? … I can move that call probably anywhere within a geographic area, but what happens when they get the call—what do they do with that call? They try to transfer it back, and now you’re in this endless loop you can’t resolve.” she said.

Next-generation 911 technology is architected to provide that sort of interoperability, but the 911 sector has significant funding issues that will make it difficult for many agencies to make the transition, Jaeger said.

“Often, you have funding for 911 at a state level, and not at a local level,” she said. “When those costs come down to the communities, they just don’t have the revenues to support it. … We’re in a state where a tax increase can’t even be discussed. ”

Consequently, the state of Arizona is close to launching a managed-services model that Jaeger hopes will make it affordable for PSAPs to upgrade their gear. The state negotiated a monthly per-seat fee that would cover all necessary equipment and component upgrades, as well as maintenance. While a managed-services model is uncommon in the public-safety sector, businesses have been using it for years, according to Jaeger.

 In addition to eliminating capital expenditures for equipment, it is possible that many agencies will be able to roll the fee into their existing operating-expenditure budgets, Jaeger said.

“What we went out to the vendor with was, ‘What can we do for this amount of money—per seat, per month—for all of the 911 centers, and all of the positions, in the state?’ … We said, ‘This is how much our revenue is, and what can you do for us?’” she said.