This spring, thousands of public-safety agencies are being asked to respond to a survey about wireless communications interoperability in their jurisdictions. Their answers will be a part of an unprecedented effort launched by the Department of Homeland Security's SAFECOM Program — the National Interoperability Baseline, which will provide a much-needed statistical snapshot of interoperability capabilities nationwide, at state, local and tribal levels.

Although there may be a variety of opinions in the public-safety community about how to implement effective interoperability, virtually all planners agree that we first need to know exactly where we are in order to get to where we need to go.

In keeping with SAFECOM's overriding approach to planning, public-safety practitioners, including law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services leaders throughout the country, were closely involved in developing the survey, which is unique in that it is the first interoperability assessment based on the comprehensive definition of interoperability developed by SAFECOM in partnership with the public-safety community.

This definition recognizes that while technology is critically important, it is only one of five essential elements required for reliable interoperability (see textbox). Based on this definition, the survey includes questions such as:

  • Are public-safety and elected officials coming together to plan, support and promote interoperability among jurisdictions and different levels of government?

  • To what degree is interoperability institutionalized in standard operating procedures?

  • What technological solutions have been implemented to achieve interoperability?

  • Are first responders being trained on interoperability technologies and procedures?

  • Is interoperability easily obtained and used in real-life, day-to-day situations?

SAFECOM's goal is to identify the differences in interoperability capability based on agency size — using populations served for fire and EMS agencies and number of sworn officers for law enforcement agencies — and whether the agency owns or shares a system.

In order to ensure that survey results give an accurate picture of interoperability nationwide, SAFECOM is asking randomly selected agencies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to respond to the questions and is issuing an invitation letter and survey instructions directly to the agencies comprising the survey sample.

Moreover, SAFECOM is urging all survey recipients to complete the survey promptly and thoroughly, and SAFECOM leadership is emphasizing that a small investment of time at the agency level can make an enormous difference to everyone in the public-safety community. The responses will be reported only in the aggregate, as part of the nationwide results.

SAFECOM also is asking homeland security directors for all 50 states and the District of Columbia to complete a shorter version of the survey. SAFECOM anticipates that these directors will be able to provide especially important input about governance issues at the state level.

Once the surveys are complete and results have been compiled, SAFECOM will conduct follow-up site visits with approximately 36 organizations throughout the country. These site visits will be designed to gather supplemental information from the public-safety community that will help provide a deeper understanding of the survey findings and the issues they reveal.

SAFECOM will publish the survey results for use by the entire public-safety community. With a clear, new and accurate picture of current interoperability capability in hand, planners and practitioners will be better equipped to advance the community's shared vision of interoperable communications.

While the results of the survey will no doubt be important to planners in the coming year, additional value will be gained by repeating it. SAFECOM plans to re-administer the survey on a recurring basis to update findings. Even the most optimistic members of the public-safety community acknowledge that achieving interoperability will be a long-term process. The National Interoperability Baseline Survey is an important step forward.

Alan Caldwell is the senior adviser for government relations for the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

SAFECOM's Principles of Interoperability


Standard operating procedures


Training and exercises

Use of interoperable communications

Source: Department of Homeland Security