Communications is only one slice of the interoperability pie. In fact, although interoperable communication systems are an essential tool during an incident, preplanning strategies and tactics are crucial to safeguarding lives.

One of the most common ways to preplan incidents is through the National Incident Management System. The government argued that NIMS was needed to create interoperable common-operational pictures across different state and local agencies. And, many in public-safety stand behind it, like Leonard Carmichael Jr., a fire captain in Trenton, N.J. Carmichael said he strongly believes NIMS provides a systematic, proactive approach that can guide agencies at all levels of government to prevent, protect against, respond to, recover from and mitigate the effects of incidents.

NIMS puts forth several operational strategies, some as simple as naming all resources by the same name. The step saves time and lives at a scene, Carmichael said.

“It provides a framework from which all incidents should be managed,” he said.

NIMS is pretty straightforward, but it doesn’t seem to go far enough. I’m more impressed with other mutual-aid and common operational strategies at work in my own state. Illinois is lucky enough to have the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS), a mutual-aid organization that has existed since the late 1960s. The organization started in the northern Illinois area and now includes more than 550 member fire departments organized within 46 divisions. It coordinates mutual-aid responses and distributes equipment to 1,200 participating agencies throughout Illinois, as well as interstate cooperation with Wisconsin, Indiana, Missouri and Iowa.

I recently sat in on a MABAS meeting, where president Jay Reardon hosted public-safety folks from Oregon who wanted to learn how to establish a similar system in their state. Reardon provided an in-depth perspective on how MABAS operates and tips on how the chiefs could work with local officials to adopt the system throughout their state. For example, he noted that it is important the state maintain interoperable systems and develop pre-designate operational plans — including listing of all the state's apparatus and communications assets.

Reardon also told the chiefs it is paid for through more than $30 million in grant dollars from federal and state budgets, which is used to purchase apparatus and other equipment for state fire stations and large-scale incident firefighter training.

What makes the system unique is that more than 1,100 of the state’s 1,200 fire departments are onboard. Every participating agency has signed a contract with MABAS. In the contract, the agencies agree to standards of operation, incident command, minimal staffing, safety and on-scene terminology. Interestingly, all agencies operated on a common radio frequency (IFERN).

I think it’s great. The MABAS team sends out personnel and equipment, which operate the same incident strategies and communicate over the same frequency for true interoperability. So I wonder: If Illinois can do it, and Oregon is only one of many states to jump on board, what’s the problem? To me, it seems like a roadmap to interoperability already exists —at least in Illinois. I’d like to see more states adapt the system, until finally our federal government realizes that state agencies have been working on these issues for decades — with a lot better results than anything coming out of FEMA or the FCC.