Interoperability means different things to different people. To some, it's everybody on the same radio system. To others, it's everybody on different radios systems, but using the same technology. And a third group would have no need for standardized technology, opting instead for “back-room” solutions that tie the systems together. Beyond technical interoperability, questions also abound concerning operational interoperability. Do we really want firefighters and police on the same system? If so, can one radio system serve their unique operational needs? From a geography standpoint, the radio system perfect for an urban environment probably is less than optimal for a statewide system.

Then, if full interoperability is achieved, how are incidences handled in terms of emergency radio traffic management? I've seen more than one report that the real problem concerning interoperable communications is not the capability — it's already there — but rather the lack of training for users. Police officers are trained on how and when to use a gun in a crisis, but do they receive the same level of training in the proper use of their radio? Which is used more in the course of a single police officer's shift, a gun or a radio?

The multitude of interoperability issues leads to an even greater amount of opinions. One group claims the policymakers aren't in the field, so they make their decisions for purely political or expedient purposes. Another group claims that some in the field are too resistant to change. Meanwhile, the manufacturers each claim that their solution is better than another's incompatible solution, while the feds make millions available for interoperable systems, very little of which flows to local first responders because very few regions have been able to agree on how to achieve interoperability.

Into this abyss comes the Safecom Report, which is now in Revision 1.1 and available on the Safecom Web site (http://www.safecomprogram.gov).

The report's 208 pages should not be lightly dismissed. The document, by its own admission, focuses on the functional interoperability requirements of first responders and purposely avoids specifying technologies and business models designed to meet those needs. But the document also purports to develop guidance for grants (money!) and provide tools and models for training, all of which are a step in the right direction.

It seems as if the public-safety community is at a crossroad. Money is being made available to do the things that first responders need to improve their communications capability. However, we have to make sure that, to the extent possible, there is agreement from all the players involved. I don't mean to suggest that a unanimous opinion is possible — or even desirable. Rather, the needs of each group must be addressed in a manner that expeditiously makes things happen.

Alan Tilles is counsel to numerous entities in the private radio, Internet and entertainment industries. He is a partner in the law firm of Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker and can be reached at atilles@srgpe.com.