Radios don't save lives, people do. But people must be able to communicate before they can help. One of the biggest problems that arose in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was the lack of radio interoperability. By most accounts, everyone who came to help already had a radio, but that radio only connected them to their “home” users. Visiting public-safety officials could speak neither with users who were based in the region nor with each other.

Tragically, once again we saw that we cannot help if we cannot communicate, and we cannot communicate if our equipment does not interoperate. This is an especially important lesson, but it seems to be a lesson we have been unable to learn even when the teacher is widespread tragedy. We all know we do not interoperate, but why is that so?

Often it is because we cannot even imagine the answer — much less understand and embrace it — when the lesson is so far removed from our own experience. So it is with interoperable communications.

Traditionally, we always have solved radio problems with radios. And because radios are all different, the more radios we throw at the interoperability problem, the worse it gets. Even when there is a great call for a standard radio to throw at the problem, those radios still come in different frequency bands and are of no help. And so we start the process over, and once again we begin by asking: How can we get these radios to talk to each other?

The answer is to convert those voice calls to IP packets and put them on one IP network that is managed by an IP server running a public-safety grade application. We can do this now. There is no need to invent or allow the technology to mature.

If we are willing to look in unexpected places and accept unexpected solutions, we can learn the critical lesson and break this cycle. Certainly we know that we cannot learn a new lesson from an old solution.

Unfortunately, we tend to learn best when the lesson aligns with our own interests. Thus the problem with interoperability: It demands alignment with others outside our circle. Response to a citywide incident requires alignment with county agencies, countywide with state and statewide with federal. Such alignment usually is attempted only after the incident already has occurred and when the situation is dire. The result often is too little communications too late.

Two things are required to break the cycle. First, we need leadership at each level of government to force the behavioral inter-alignment required for interoperability to be feasible. No level of government can abrogate that responsibility because doing so cuts off interoperability at that level and above.

Neither can we fund exclusively at the lowest level and expect interoperability at all levels. This hasn't worked and perhaps we should not have expected it to work anymore than we could expect an interstate highway system to emerge from connecting all the Main Streets in America.

Second, we need to build a National Interoperability Network. This is not a national radio system, nor is it a call to buy everyone in the country a new radio. This is a single unified public-safety network with the capability and capacity to handle multiple widespread disasters through the interoperation of existing radio systems. It does not obviate the need for new radio systems, but rather it must facilitate the migration from legacy radio systems to new systems by allowing them to interoperate. Of course, that is the real lesson: Leverage the past and create a future-ready network. Now would be a good time to start.

John Vaughan is vice president of M/A-COM's Wireless Systems Business Unit. During his 20 years with the company he has created and run several businesses for the company based on radio frequency technology. He received a Ph.D. from MIT in Materials Science in 1981.