While public safety had been struggling with interoperability for decades, the problem took center stage on Sept. 11, 2001.

Finally, interoperability became the issue of the day and was addressed by elected officials with vigor and in a bipartisan fashion.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Project SAFECOM was formed to address the issue of public-safety wireless communications and interoperability. For the first time, a national strategy for interoperable communications is being developed that will provide a roadmap. According to DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, Project SAFECOM and other interoperability efforts will receive additional resources and be key components of a new office called the Office of Interoperability and Compatibility.

So after millions of dollars have been spent on wireless interoperability, what roadblocks remain?

To get to the answer, let's first define interoperability. The definition developed by the National Task Force on Interoperability and refined by Project SAFECOM describes interoperability as, “The ability of public-safety agencies to communicate with one another via radio communications systems — to exchange voice and/or data with one another on demand, in real time, when needed and when authorized.”

Is interoperability really happening? The answer is yes and no. There are many successful examples around the country, and that trend will continue. Myriad technologies — including interconnect patching devices, radio over IP, mesh networks and Project 25-compatible radio systems — combined with available funding have made interoperability achievable for both large and small public-safety agencies.

If technology isn't the problem, then what is preventing interoperability? For a while, many believed it was the lack of incident/unified command, but now that the National Incident Management System is being implemented around the country, what else?

The real problem stems from the people who determine how the technology will be used. While technology that enables interoperability has been deployed at a rapid rate nationwide, the biggest roadblock that prevents interoperability is the human factor.

The way in which some of this technology is being used has not achieved functional interoperability. In other words, some agencies now have the ability through their new technology to communicate with one another but choose not to do so or have simply not changed the way they do business.

It's all about relationships! Successful deployment of NIMS and interoperability both depend on effective relationships between the men and women who make up the various public-safety agencies. We must develop relationships built on friendship, respect and mutual trust. And we must be willing to embrace new ideas. Abraham Lincoln, while campaigning for the presidency in 1856 (a nomination he did not win), could have been speaking about interoperability when he said, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”

Interoperable wireless communications requires a comprehensive approach to be truly effective. The requirements include technology, planning, standard operating guides, incident/unified command (NIMS), training, familiarity with the communications equipment and practical drills to test system effectiveness. The most significant influence to achieve true interoperability will be an open-mindedness that will allow and promote new ways of operating. Ask yourself this: Are you an interoperability roadblock?

One closing note: While interoperability and interference are two separate issues, radio interference must be resolved as a precursor to interoperability; as such, the FCC's recent 800 MHz ruling is the most effective way to eliminate public-safety radio interference.

Charles Werner is a 28-year veteran of the fire service and presently serves as deputy fire chief for the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department. Chief Werner serves on a number of local, state and federal interoperability working groups and is Technology Chair for the Virginia Fire Chiefs, and Chair of the Commonwealth of Virginia First Responder Interoperability Working Group. In addition, he serves on the International Association of Fire Chiefs Communications Committee and the Project SAFECOM Executive Committee.