In the state of Utah, police officers receive about 80 hours of training per year on job-related functions, such as marksmanship, but they spend virtually no time learning the intricacies of their communications systems. So says Steve Proctor, executive director of the Utah Communications Agency Network. Proctor finds the situation equally ironic and troubling, given that the mobile radio system is something a police officer uses every day and can spell the difference between life and death in an emergency situation, not only for the officer, but also for the civilians he or she is sworn to protect.

Proctor doesn't believe the situation is unique to Utah. In fact, he believes it is part of a nationwide epidemic of woefully insufficient communications training regimens that afflict first responders of every type. More than that, Proctor believes it is long past time for department chiefs, local governments and even industry vendors to do something about it. Recently, MRT spoke with Proctor about the current and future state of mobile radio communications training.

MRT: You clearly are driven by the conviction that first responders need more training on their communications systems. What sparked that conviction?

Proctor: We were involved in a hostage situation back in 1988. A church had been bombed by a group of fundamentalists, who then holed up in their compound. That triggered a two-week siege, which resulted in the exchange of gunfire. There were five major agencies on the scene — and no one could talk to each other. It was very frustrating to be in a situation where your heart is pumping and you need to communicate with somebody, but you can't find the channel, or you're not on the same band or aren't using the same type of radio. It's just a killer in real life. That was the motivation for me to fix this.

MRT: Why is regularly scheduled, ongoing training so important?

Proctor: In the public-safety business, police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians become very familiar with the one to 10 channels they use every day. When you have a chase going on, and you're on the interstate driving at 90 miles an hour, and looking to pass this chase off to the next jurisdiction, imagine trying to drive that car and at the same time find the proper channel in that radio. It has to be instinctive, but we don't provide enough constant training for that to occur. It boils down to regularly scheduled training and a regular review of system talk groups for dispatcher, user and network provider.

MRT: Do have any first-hand experience in this regard?

Proctor: During the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, my operations manager — Jake Hunt — held a dozen or more training classes on how we were going to talk to each other. What was really interesting is that six months after the Olympics were over, a couple of incidents occurred where we needed to use that infrastructure, and we couldn't remember how to use it because we weren't using it every day. It's becoming a critical issue. You have to inform the chiefs this needs to be done, create a pilot program and get it funded. You almost have to become an evangelist.

MRT: What do first responders struggle with the most?

Proctor: People have a difficult time understanding what site covers what area. They don't get the concept behind simulcast and why it is such a valuable tool for penetrating buildings and providing wider areas of coverage. They have a difficult time finding all the channels in the radio, especially if they're not named the same. They don't understand coverage areas very well. And they don't recognize they can switch to another channel to get the coverage they need when transmissions become scratchy on the channel they're using.

MRT: The complexity and sophistication of today's radio equipment are a factor, correct?

Proctor: Absolutely. The radios we use have 160 possible channels. On a day-to-day basis, officers generally use their car-to-dispatch and car-to-car channels, and maybe a channel to talk with a surrounding agency. During a chase, the number of channels you use will vary depending on the size of the chase area. We have operational channels for local events, regional channels for events that might involve two to three jurisdictions and event channels for situations that involve multiple jurisdictions. The system works pretty well, provided people remember how and why these channels are used, and where on the radio they are located. But people aren't always as familiar as they should be, and that creates havoc. It's especially difficult to grasp this in the heat of the moment.

MRT: Will the current situation worsen as systems continue to evolve?

Proctor: Without question. What we're really creating is a mobile office environment for public-safety personnel. It's voice and data. We're talking about creating hot spots where officers will be able to access the network and upload and download reports right from their vehicle. Officers will need to understand the coverage areas of those hot spots and how to operate those systems. The people who train public-safety personnel need to make this a part of their curriculum.

MRT: If you were given a blank sheet of paper, what type of training regimen would you create?

Proctor: I would require all new recruits, everyone who would be using the radio system, to go though a one-day training session on how their handheld, mobile and portable radios work, what the coverage areas are, dispatch protocol and radio protocol, in other words, a basic primer on how to use the system. I think you could fill an eight-hour day fairly well just with that. Then I would schedule a semi-annual retraining session to go back over those issues because you're always changing the system, adding things to it, putting more network in, expanding coverage areas, those types of things.

MRT: How do you think first responders would react to such a scenario?

Proctor: The new generation of first responders grew up in a technology world. They eat this stuff up as fast as you can feed it to them. They're not intimidated by it, they're not afraid of it. As that new generation replaces the old guard, you're going to see technology become an even bigger driver in the public-safety business. And they're eager to learn. You see police officers now sitting in coffee shops showing each other the things they know about how to use their radios. But that's not enough. We need more formal training, and it needs to start at the academies.

MRT: But won't most first responders classify radio communications training under the “nice-to-do” category, as opposed to “must-do” training related to their specific job functions?

Proctor: More and more officers are beginning to understand that few of them will ever fire their weapons in the line of duty. In contrast, how many times do they fire their radio in a day? They grasp how important it is to understand the ability of that radio to perform in the field. It might save their life. In Utah, for instance, you're either very urban or you're very rural. When you get out into those rural areas, those guys are alone; the nearest backup can be a hundred miles away. They rely on those communications as their only link to somebody who can help them.

MRT: Making radio communication an integral part of the training regimen is going to require more than buy-in from first responders, right?

Proctor: There's a cost involved to have people off the street and in training. Most cities and towns are cash-strapped these days, and they need as many people as possible on the street to provide the proper coverage. That makes training more difficult to justify. We need a culture change.

MRT: Do you have any suggestions as to how to achieve such change?

Proctor: It's almost like selling a new system, but instead of selling the system you're selling the training. When you put in a new system, you make training part and parcel to implementing the system. You have to hold the vendor's feet to the coals a little bit; tell them that training has to be part of the package if they want any hope of being chosen to implement the system. Even though some vendors are cash-strapped themselves, most are pretty good about that.

Steve Proctor is a nationally recognized authority on public-safety communications. He currently is executive director of the Utah Communications Agency Network, a quasi-state agency charged with the operation and maintenance of a 10-county regional communications system serving 109 separate public-safety agencies. He also has served as Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials national president from 1994-95, and on the steering committees of the National Coordination Committee, The Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Project SAFECOM.