On Dec. 20, 1984, firefighter Paul Maplethorpe was on a fire department ladder high above Warren Township High School in Gurnee, Ill., which was ablaze. Peering over the expanse, Maplethorpe, who was directing the efforts of a truck company that day, came to a chilling conclusion: the inferno was about to leap into another section of the complex. Should that occur, Maplethorpe knew, it would be next to impossible to contain the already extra-alarm fire.

Maplethorpe knew he had to share this vital information immediately with the incident commanders on the scene. He just didn't know how because interoperability hadn't been contemplated. “In the early ‘80s, everybody was still operating on their dispatch channel, and when there was a big incident, everyone went to the mutual aid channel, and no one could get a word in edgewise,” Maplethorpe said.

That's exactly what occurred during the Warren High School fire. Eventually, Maplethorpe — frustrated by repeated unsuccessful attempts to get through to the incident commanders and knowing that time was fast running out — climbed down the ladder and sprinted across the school's parking lot to the command post for a face-to-face conversation. By then it was too late. The extra alarm blaze spread at lightning speed and eventually gutted the school, which had to be rebuilt. In the aftermath, roughly 1500 students were displaced for more than two years.

“We learned from that experience,” he said. “We adopted a fireground channel in Lake County.”

Maplethorpe, who became chief of the Greater Round Lake Fire Protection District in Illinois two years later, a position he still holds, wasn't done learning. Fast forward to Feb. 9, 2000, when WGN radio personality Bob Collins collided in mid-air with a student pilot and then crashed into a hospital in Zion, Ill. The scene was chaos — patients and staff needed to be evacuated, the injured needed care, the building was not only on fire but also in danger of collapse, and the aviation fuel created a hazardous-materials event. For Maplethorpe, it also was a case of deja vu.

“We had four major events going all at one location,” he recalled. “Between the dispatch channel and the fireground channel, you couldn't get a word in. In fact, we were using alternate frequencies that a few of us had to pass critical information. As a result of that incident, we said we need more fireground channels in Lake County.”

Eventually, the single fireground channel grew into four and became the basis for Mutual-Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS), which boosted the number of available fireground channels throughout Illinois to six. Currently, 800 fire departments are affiliated with MABAS and another 700 fire departments in neighboring Missouri are poised to join the organization, according to Maplethorpe. “We could go to 1500 fire departments overnight.”

Clearly, judging from the attention paid to it at the recent IWCE 2004 in Las Vegas, interoperability is nearly as important to public safety as fixing the interference problems that plague the 800 MHz band, and that's saying something. Standing in the way of achieving interoperability at least on a regional basis, according to the experts interviewed for this article, is a lack of understanding and consensus concerning how to define interoperability. The effort to determine what interoperability is begins with agreeing on what it isn't, say these same experts.

“Interoperability in my mind is the ability for agencies to talk to each other — usually at the command level — and to be able to do so on common frequencies,” said Steve Souder, director of the Montgomery County 911 Emergency Communications Center in Maryland. “It certainly isn't intended for every law enforcement person, or every fire person, to be able to talk to everybody they felt they needed to.”

David Boyd, director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's SAFECOM Program — which oversees the development of interoperable communications between public-safety entities nationwide — agreed. “One of the most important things we felt we needed to do to was to identify just exactly what we mean by interoperability,” he said. “The operating definition we use is fairly broad: the ability of any public-safety official to talk to whoever they need to, whenever they need to, when properly authorized.”

The key component of SAFECOM's definition, according to Boyd, is the phrase “when properly authorized.”

“You don't want everybody talking to everybody all the time. That's a recipe for chaos,” he said.

Last month, SAFECOM issued a Statement of Requirements (SOR) designed to help public-safety agencies better understand interoperability and guide them through the unwieldy process of achieving such communications, first on a local level, then eventually regionwide, statewide and nationwide.

The SOR, for the first time, provides the nation's approximately 50,000 public-safety agencies with a “shared vision” in terms of how to use “in-the-field information resources” more efficiently when responding to a variety of emergency events, according to SAFECOM. The SOR also offers guidance on how the communications industry can better align its research and development efforts with the needs of public safety.

The 192-page document presents in detail a variety of emergency scenarios — and the suggested responses — that first responders on the local level, regardless of whether they are in rural areas or major cities, will likely encounter at some point. The emphasis on local first responders was by design, according to Boyd.

“We want to get communities at the lowest possible level to sign on to a set of definitions for interoperability,” Boyd said. “The reason is that if you're going to solve interoperability in the states, you have to start from the bottom up.”

The reason, according to Boyd, is that more than 90% of the wireless public-safety infrastructure is “owned, operated and maintained” primarily on the local level. “If you don't have them on board, you can't build to national interoperability. They're essentially the key drivers,” Boyd said.

In addition to providing public safety with a road map to interoperability, the SOR also provides a useful tool when seeking funding at the local level, according to Boyd.

“This provides the document and — we hope — part of the business case that they can take to their funding activities, whether it's the state legislature, the city council or the county commissioners,” Boyd said. “They'll be able to say, ‘This is what we ought to have, this is a national document that talks about how we should be able to [communicate].’”

Also clear at IWCE 2004 was the zeal with which vendors are embracing the opportunities afforded by the quest for interoperability. Noteworthy among the myriad interoperability-related announcements were M/A-COM's introduction of VIDA — which enables seamless interoperable communications between disparate networks by converting all voice traffic to packets and then transmitting them over an IP backbone — and Raytheon JPS Communications' creation of a team of industry experts that will be available to customers as they attempt to tackle the operational challenges that accompany interoperability efforts. (The company also introduced a voice-over-IP component to its ACU-1000 Interconnect System that offers interoperable communications between multiple radio systems operating on different frequencies.)

“Seventy-five percent of IWCE exhibitors were touting interoperability solutions,” Souder said.

But while it might be nice to believe that the SOR represents the tool — or at least one of the tools — needed to pry open the lid on the funding box, the reality is that public-safety agencies might be disappointed with what they find inside. Many hamlets nationwide find themselves in a cash-strapped position these days, with barely enough money available to keep current equipment operating effectively, much less the cash necessary to upgrade to next-generation communications systems.

“How do you go to a fire department that operates on $20,000 per year, with pancake breakfasts and car washes, and tell them they have to scrap their radio system and the new one is going to cost $100,000?” Maplethorpe said.

Harlin McEwen, chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police communications and technology committee, agreed. “Even in the largest metropolitan areas and cities, a lot of the systems are antiquated, and they haven't been able to upgrade them primarily due to a lack of funding,” McEwen said, despite the fact that federal assistance has improved since Sept. 11, 2001. “The amount of money it's going to take over the long haul is going to be dramatic. It's going to take a long time.”

Even federal assistance isn't always the gift that it might seem at first, according to Steve Proctor, 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 — which coordinated inter-agency communications during the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games.

“Federal money is wonderful, but sometimes it's the most expensive money you can get, because there can be a one-time influx but no ongoing operational maintenance to keep the system running.”

Proctor added that even if money were plentiful, it wouldn't be enough to get some public-safety officials to pursue communications system upgrades. “You have some people who have been in the system a long time, maybe 15 to 20 years, and for them the technology pill is difficult to swallow. They struggle with getting all of this new technology and learning how to use it, vs. the young lions who are coming in and eating up technology like it's breakfast cereal.”

Which brings us to the second item on the list of what interoperability is not: it's not a technology play, at least not yet. Consequently, experts suggest public-safety entities focus on planning, procedures, partnerships and training to achieve interoperability over the short term.

Montgomery County's Souder has first-hand knowledge of how effective planning can pay off. He was actively involved in the effort by Washington, D.C.-area first-responder agencies to coordinate communications procedures and protocols, which resulted in regionwide interoperable communications between federal, state and local entities during the October 2002 sniper attacks. (For more information on this effort, see the story entitled “Planning pays off in sniper attacks,” which appeared in the March 2004 MRT.)

“You can have all the sites, spectrum and radios you need, but if you don't have operating procedures, you're not going to achieve interoperability,” Souder said. “You all have to be singing from the same hymnal.”

Souder also stressed the need to train first responders in the use of their communications equipment. “Radios are a lot like cell phones and VCRs,” Souder said. “The capacity of these devices is far greater than the level they're being used.”

One IWCE 2004 attendee whose company supports a local police department noted that officers receive training in police procedures twice a week; in contrast, training on the department's communications system consists of a three-page handout, a situation that astounded Souder. “The most critical piece of equipment on a police officer's belt is the radio,” Souder said.

According to Proctor, the complexity of today's radios demand ongoing training. “We're not putting radios in their hands, we're giving them computers with antennas,” he said. “How can we expect them to get the most out of those units if we don't train them?”

However, Proctor added that he understands to a degree why communications training is so lacking among first responders.

“If you talk to a police officer, firefighter or EMS person, the number one thing they will tell you they need training for is their respective field,” Proctor said. “The cop needs to know what the law is, the firefighter has to know what to do when he goes into a burning building and the paramedic needs medical knowledge. Consequently, right off the bat, knowledge of the radio system is relegated to the bottom rung of the training ladder.”