Interoperability: It’s about saving lives
Interoperability saves lives and speeds response.
At no time was this proven more clearly than on Sept. 11, after the attack on the Pentagon. In contrast to the attack on New York, where a lack of network interoperability hampered rescue efforts, most police, fire and EMS crews responding in the District were able to talk to one another easily. The results — as we shall see — speak for themselves.
The Sept. 11 Pentagon response isn’t the only instance in which interoperability has made a difference. Moreover, quick response isn’t the only advantage offered by interoperable public radio systems, although it is the most dramatic.
Interoperability also helps to reduce per-agency costs while boosting network performance and coverage. It’s a smart way to overcome budget constraints and environmental concerns, and it fosters cooperation among police, fire and EMS agencies.
Increased cooperation cannot come too soon; in the wake of Sept. 11, there’s no room for turf fights among public safety services. With the ominous, continuing threat of similar horrific attacks, creating interoperable networks is a good way to foster cooperation on a larger scale and a relatively unthreatening way to begin.
Interoperability can mean putting everyone on a common frequency with common modulation, but it doesn’t have to. Sharing portable radios among departments, so that messages can be exchanged during emergencies, is another form of interoperability.
So, too, is the ACU-1000 Modular Interconnect System. As described in the February 2002 issue of Mobile Radio Technology (“Chicago Blazes a Trail to Interoperability”), the ACU-1000 lets you plug in as many as 10 radios, whatever their frequencies, and connect them as if you were using a telephone switch.
But interoperability isn’t just about hardware; it’s about cooperation and shared planning — which leads us to Washington.
Jan. 13, 1982: Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the 14th St. bridge during a snowstorm. More than 70 people lost their lives when the wreckage sank into the river.
Police, fire and EMS crews quickly responded to the scene, only to discover that they couldn’t coordinate their efforts because they couldn’t talk to each other by radio.
Almost 21 years later, the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. Again, lives were lost. But this time, radio communications were different. Local public safety agencies — and the governments that fund them — had learned from the Air Florida tragedy. This time, they could talk to each other.
In fact, 900 users were able to communicate on an 800MHz digital system, everyone from Washington Police to Arlington County, VA, rescue, plus 48 other agencies. Thanks to mutual aid plans already signed and coordinated by the region’s Metropolitan Council of Governments and a history of joint mass-emergency drills by the area’s public safety agencies, everyone knew how to work together on Sept. 11.
Best yet, Washington-area agencies had instituted a formal Incident Command System for large emergencies before the attack, so the chain of command was clear.
The bottom line: On Sept. 11, 2001, “the public safety networks in Washington worked well,” said Deputy Chief John Clayton of Washington’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services. “The only real challenge, as far as radio communications was concerned, was that some out-of-town companies didn’t have 800MHz radios, so we had to set up relays.”
This one gap in interoperability was cited in a report, “Answering the Call: Communications Lessons Learned from the Pentagon Attack.” Issued by the Public Safety Wireless Network Program, a joint effort sponsored by the U.S. Departments of Justice and the Treasury, the report noted that “during the initial response, the majority of local public safety responders experienced no difficulty in establishing interoperable communications on the scene. This was because of the high-level of regional coordination and agreements previously established. However, as the number of state and federal agencies (secondary responders) increased at the site, interoperability presented new challenges. No means of direct interoperability was immediately available to these secondary response agencies.”
Nevertheless, the overall response to the Sept. 11 Pentagon attack was a ringing endorsement for interoperability. “It made the difference,” said PWSN program manager Rick Murphy. “The Pentagon incident demonstrated in a very public way how critically important communications capabilities are for public safety agencies.”
As monstrous as they are, terrorist attacks aren’t the only problems public safety networks face.
In South Florida, various levels of government face radio-related problems. For the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the U.S. Border Patrol, one challenge involves illegal immigrants from Cuba. For the Florida Highway Patrol, it’s watching the region’s freeways. And the Miami-Dade Police Department polices one of the nation’s busiest areas.
With financial help from PSWN, all three levels of government increased their cooperation. Rather than continuing to operate apart, “we set up three hubs,” said the MDPD’s Capt. Jesse Varnell. “One handles local government; the second handles state agencies, and the third supports federal users like the INS, the U.S. Customs service, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Border Patrol.”
Through these hubs, everyone can talk to one another. “We can go car-to-car with state, federal, and local agencies,” said Varnell. “We can also patch an FBI officer through the Border Patrol’s hub directly to a MDPD tactical unit, and back again with no problems.”
Still, not all of these agencies operate radios on the same wavelength. For instance, the MDPD is on 800MHz, and the state police is on 155MHz.
No problem: PSWN has supplied Dade, Broward and Monroe Counties with a TRP-1000, the transportable version of JPS Communications’ ACU-1000 radio switch. “If we’re faced with a mass immigration coming in from the sea, we can drive the TRP-1000 to the scene and plug in our various radios,” said Varnell. “This way, we can all communicate with each other.”
So, even though they haven’t migrated to the same bandwidth, agencies in South Florida can talk to one another as needed.
In Montana, the federal Bureau of Land Management had a radio problem. Its transmitter building at Red Lodge was run down and in need of repair.
The bureau wasn’t alone; two other public safety sites in the area were in similar dire straits, said Douglas King, the BLM’s telecommunications manager in Montana. “All of the buildings were several decades old and poorly constructed,” he said. “We were all ready to tear them down and start again.”
Enter PSWN with funding and coordination help. The result: Six agencies — the BLM, the FBI, the U.S. Forest Service, Carbon County, the Montana Department of Transportation and Montana’s Highway Patrol — pooled their operations into a single location. Known as the Palisades Project, the new tower and transmitter site is in Red Lodge.
“I think it was the right way to go,” said King. “No one single agency could have afforded to build such a facility. In the long run, we’ll all save a huge amount of money, while providing solid, coordinated coverage for the public.”
The Palisades site construction began in 2000 and soon shut down for much of a long, dry summer because of the fire risk. Then, when winter arrived, the site was buried by snow and the road was taken out by a landslide.
Still, the Palisades site was officially opened in September 2001. Today, this interoperable facility is saving money and hassles, while helping its state and federal users save lives.
Put plainly, interoperability makes sense. It’s a cost-saver, a resource saver and a life-saver.
Moreover, interoperability encourages inter-agency cooperation. This, in turn, improves overall emergency response for police, fire and EMS.
It’s as simple as that.
Careless is a freelance telecommunications writer based in Ottawa, ON, Canada. His email address is email@example.com.