What it means to get along
“A change is as good as a rest,” Ron Phillips used to say, according to his daughter, Ann, who now directs the family business — a radio common carrier based in Kansas City, MO.
If that chestnut of wisdom from Mr. Phillips is correct, we will be in for the equivalent of an extended vacation based on coming changes in public safety communications. One big change should involve how we work together.
The word “interoperability” (it really was a word before Motorola invented it) is rearing its ugly head again. Otherwise reasonable folks who appear to be too tightly wrapped in the cloak of “9-11” have begun to espouse opinions about it, and they are attempting to impose their views on others, all in the name of public safety. But it’s important to not confuse interoperability with “intertalkability.” Interoperability involves all the aspects of working together, whereas intertalkability is simply talking on the radio to each other. We want the former but often confuse it with the latter.
The process of Integrated Emergency Management provides a structured mechanism for multiple responding agencies to work together to handle an emergency situation. The main tool for this management process (and related communication task) is the Incident Command System.
ICS is a prescribed set of rules or procedures by which an incident of any scalable size can be managed. Because ICS already anticipates multiple-agency mutual aid response with disparate communications systems, intertalkability is only one small part of it. ICS is a reality, and its result mirrors the concept of interoperability. What’s important is responders working together, not just talking with each other.
Obviously, firefighters, paramedics and cops need to interact in dealing with an emergency response. As part of that process they should be able to talk on the radio among their individual work groups. But as the scope and intensity (and congestion and work density) of the incident ratchets up, the need for wide-area, high-tech, network-affiliated intertalkable radio declines. When a group of rescuers is assigned to dig a single residence, or when a tactical team is conducting operations at a single school, requirements for “network availability,” “communications infrastructure resources” and “wide-area coverage” all go out the window.
Well-meaning public officials, well-intended citizen advisors, and not-necessarily-so-selfless commercial providers may sense an urgency for a large scale overhaul of public safety radio communications, all intended to help what they call interoperability. No doubt that the resulting intertalkability could be helpful, but certain, currently publicized problems between several of the federal “alphabet police” agencies wouldn’t be solved by simply talking (or not) to each other on two-way radios.
Public safety communications is simply one tool to enhance public safety. The important benefit of any joint response is the understanding of the individual roles that each responder brings to the scene — not the conversations they have on their radios. Better understanding and more universal acceptance of the Incident Command System would vastly improve joint responses, but the training and preparation (and acceptance) must come before the incident, not on the two-way radio while enroute to the call.
Dunford, MRT’s public safety consultant, is technical services consultant for the Lenexa, KS, police department. He is a member of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International. His email address is [email protected].