There are certain things that can be counted on in life, and the list goes far beyond death and taxes. For instance, car keys will be missing at the most inopportune time, coffee will spill into your lap the day you're wearing light-colored pants and an unexpected storm cell will pop up 30 minutes after you've washed and waxed your car.

One more item on the list is that a plethora of interoperability sessions will be held at every Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials annual conference, and this year's event held in Orlando in August was no exception. There is good reason for this, as the public-safety sector continues to struggle with the concept. But while most of the rhetoric focused on the need for interoperability planning, as expected, one speaker suggested that the technology needed to achieve interoperability could be found in any sporting-goods store or RadioShack.

A decade after publishing the first “10-codes,” APCO in February 2006 endorsed the Department of Homeland Security's National Incident Management System recommendation that public-safety agencies abandon them in favor of plain-language communications. Although 10-codes were intended to standardize the way first responders communicate in the field, they subsequently morphed into something far removed from the original goal, as departments across the country amended and added to them for their own purposes.

Because first responders typically are creatures of habit, many agencies nationwide have been reluctant to act on the recommendation (MRT, May, page 72). That's a mistake on several levels, according to Charles Dowd, commanding officer of the New York City Police Department's communications division, who spoke at the APCO conference in August.

According to Dowd, plain-language communications, “clearly are the way to go,” especially at incidents where agencies from multiple jurisdictions — each of which might have their own unique 10-codes — have been deployed. Eliminating 10-codes also would benefit dispatchers, he said.

“We have more than 400 10-codes,” he said. “It takes [new] dispatchers eight weeks just to go through the book.”

However, tossing out the book only represents the beginning of the transition, Dowd said.

“When stresses go up, officers tend to revert back to how they normally talk over the radio, and that's 10-codes. That's a training issue.”

To complete the transition, it is imperative to get adjacent agencies to buy into the concept, a task that is difficult to accomplish, Dowd said. “There are turf wars everywhere — everyone is concerned about their own responsibilities,” he said. “The only way to change that is to sit down together and develop procedures.”

Such regional consensus can be accomplished, according to Gordon Vanauken, telecommunications specialist with consultancy L. Robert Kimball & Associates. In another APCO session, Vanauken described a scenario where 10 agencies in a region consolidated their unique 10-codes into a single set, with the goal of interoperable communications. It serves as an example of the type of philosophical change suggested by Dowd. “You have to get comfortable with interoperability and working with agencies you don't normally work with,” Vanauken said.

It also serves as a reminder of how difficult it can be to implement change. One year after the consolidation, an officer who was chasing a suspect started using the old 10-codes, Vanauken said, adding that the remedy is to train — preferably every day.

“If you don't, you won't remember it when you need it,” he said. “People fall back on their training.”

He further added that regular training on all aspects of its interoperability plan should be standard operating procedure for every public-safety agency.

“If you prepare but don't practice, you're missing the point because nothing goes as planned,” Vanauken said. “Practice will tell you whether your plan is correct or what you need to change.”

It's a lesson that's already been embraced by the NYPD, which relies on tabletop exercises to test the effectiveness of its interoperability plan, in order to avoid tying up equipment and personnel in field exercises, which “can be expensive,” according to Dowd.

The tabletop exercises are quite effective in terms of ensuring that both commanders and field personnel know what to do when a crisis strikes, Dowd said. “You can't just say, ‘Bring in the military.’ You have to be able to tell them what to do. If you can't, you'll have them standing around at the time when you can least afford to have them standing around.”

Perhaps more important, according to Dowd, the tabletop exercises indicate ways in which the plan is flawed. “Don't be afraid of that,” he said. “It gives you a chance to figure out what to do about it” before the plan has to be executed in a real-life scenario.

Anything learned should be shared with neighboring agencies, preferably on a regional basis, Vanauken said.

“An incident is the worst place to discover you forgot something.”

Although a universal feeling seems to exist today in the public-safety sector that the technology to achieve interoperability already exists and that the real problem is a lack of regional planning, one APCO speaker believes that premise is flawed, if not altogether wrong.

According to Steve Rauter, chief of the Lisle-Woodridge Fire Department in suburban Chicago, crosspatch and IP-based systems — even next-generation technologies such as Project 25 and software-defined radio — aren't the answer to solving the interoperability conundrum. Rather, Rauter proposes the development of “in-the-hand” solutions, perhaps based on current ham and family radio service (FRS) technology.

Rauter, who acknowledged during his session that his views on the subject “don't fit the SAFECOM model” and are not shared by APCO, isn't fond of crosspatch systems because “letting everybody talk to everybody is a lot like a loaded gun. You're setting yourself up for a secondary disaster. In the wrong hands, it can be dangerous.”

He's even less enamored of IP-based systems.

“I would prefer zero dependence on IP,” for mission-critical communications, he said. “It tends to be a fragile protocol, and I want something I know is going to work when I'm sending people into a burning building.”

A primary limitation of P25, Rauter added, is that the standard doesn't address spectrum use, a crucial consideration for most, if not all, public-safety entities. Another is that the development process continues to be sloth-like. “P25 is almost old enough to vote. It's about 18 years old, and it's nowhere near completion,” he said.

And although software-defined and cognitive radio show promise for solving the interoperability riddle, they also have limitations — primarily cost and form factor, Rauter said. One solution would be to dumb them down from what is currently being used by the military.

“A simple multi-mode, multi-band software-defined radio would be a good first step,” Rauter said. “That would solve most of the problems in Illinois, where police generally is on the UHF band and fire is on the VHF band.”

But such products are a long way off. In the meantime, Rauter said public safety should consider amateur radio units on the market that offer dual- and multi-band operation — and cost around $300, which would put them in reach of any first responder entity. He also said several FRS radios that can be found at retail outlets offer the same functionality and added that the military is developing an FRS radio that personnel could use for non-mission-critical “chit chat.”

Although such radios would have to be ruggedized for public-safety use, Rauter said that shouldn't be a problem, as several vendors already make radios for both the commercial and public-safety sectors.

AMATEUR RADIOS IN PUBLIC SAFETY

PROS:

  • Dual-band and multi-band units are available

  • Have been used for decades by hams

  • Many amateur radio manufacturers also produce public-safety radios

  • Amateur radios often meet or exceed military specifications for vibration, dust, moisture and submersion

  • Many meet public-safety specifications for spurious emissions, sensitivity and selectivity

CONS:

  • Operation is too complicated for public-safety use

  • Feature set is too rich and needs to be “dumbed down”

Source: APCO 2006 session, “An alternate view of interoperability”