Interagency planning is a key precursor
In Utah, police officers are required to go through 80 hours of training per year in law enforcement techniques and procedures, but there’s no requirement for training on the radio systems and equipment that they use.
Considering that the vast majority of police officers never fire their weapons in the line of duty — but use their mobile and portable radios every day — it is counter-intuitive that they do not receive formal radio training on a regular basis. Nevertheless, the situation in Utah is fairly typical among public-safety organizations nationwide.
When a police officer or firefighter is handed a portable radio, they’re really receiving a computer with an antenna. Moreover, land mobile radio (LMR) systems are becoming more complex by the day. It is critical then that users — for their sake, as well as for the well-being of those they are sworn to protect and serve — fully understand how to navigate the channels that reside in the radio, what they are named and what the protocols are for using those channels.
All too often, they do not understand. Last summer, a motor home went into a lake in a remote area of Utah. A dive team was deployed, as was a wrecker, police officers, emergency medical technicians and rescue personnel. None of these groups could talk to each other because the event channel was named differently for each of those entities. After several phone calls and a period of time, they got squared away and communicated very well.
Consequently, interagency agreement on channel nomenclature and positioning is a crucial precursor to an effective training program. The ability of first responders to communicate with each other, particularly across agency lines, improves dramatically when you get everybody to agree there has to be at least some common channels with common names. Everyone needs to know — without thinking about it — where the interoperability channel(s) is located when told to switch to that channel. It has to be named the same, and be located in the same place, in each radio.
It’s also a good idea to define the events during which you would use a specific channel on a county or local basis as opposed to when it is proper to use a systemwide channel. That should be pre-determined and pre-planned so that, when the stress of battle takes place, the dispatcher and the users on the street instinctively know where to go.
Unfortunately, getting disparate agencies to agree on such matters — while it would seem to be common sense — often doesn’t go smoothly. The more agencies that are involved in the negotiations, the more complicated it becomes. Politics are a factor, as are egos. There seems to be as many political boundaries as there are agency boundaries. For instance, an agency in the northern territory of the Utah Communications Agency Network (UCAN) recently told us that it wanted its channels to be positioned first in the radios because it wanted its officers to only have to make one click rather than two on the channel selector. It makes sense from the police officers’ perspective, but another agency might want the same thing for its officers.
There’s also a natural tendency for the bigger agencies to be inflexible, which can be a challenge when trying to negotiate an interagency agreement. In addition, while some leaders are prone to working cooperatively, there are others who want it their way or no way. That’s a phenomenon that is rapidly changing, however. As technology becomes more entrenched in public safety — and in society as a whole — a new generation is emerging that recognizes that technology is a tool and not something to be held ransom. I call them the young lions. They will eat all of the technology you can give them. In contrast, the guys who have been in it for a while tend to want to own and control technology, instead of using it to their advantage and — more important — to help their subordinates be safer and more effective.
Once interagency agreements are in place, the actual planning of an effective training program can begin. While an effective program involves many elements (see textbox), perhaps the most important is an understanding of the radio system being used.
Is it a system operated by a large county solely for its purposes? Or, is it a system that is used by several smaller agencies? The end-user needs and required training will be quite different for a large single-user system than one being used by several different agencies. If it’s just a one-agency system, then they will tailor the training based solely on their officer requirements. But if it’s one infrastructure serving many, then there might be different procedures for stops, how an incident is handled, who the officer calls, and for backup procedures. All of these factors must be considered when developing a training program.
Another important consideration concerns whether the system is stand-alone or trunked. If it’s a stand-alone system — that is, several repeaters located on several transmitter sites — the user of the system has to understand not only what the overall system covers but also the geography covered by each site. In contrast, a trunked system — one that is tied to a central controller and enables roaming through the system without switching channels, in the same way a cellular phone does — requires a completely different training regimen. One of the most difficult things to teach a dispatcher or an officer using a stand-alone system is the need to switch channels as the officer moves through an area. It’s been a difficult concept for people to grasp.
There are many hurdles that must be cleared when developing a radio-system training program. One is the rapidly evolving nature of the technology. However, while the pace of technology can be frustrating at times, it’s our job to stay ahead of the curve and keep users up to date. In the heat of battle, you don’t want your officers trying to remember the location of “interop channel one.”
Another challenge involves manpower concerns. A formal training program takes time, requires resources and removes people from the field to put them into a classroom. All of this represents a cost to a public-safety agency. In addition, there often isn’t enough staff to conduct an ongoing training program. Trainers usually are the same people who install and support the radio infrastructure. They tend to get spread pretty thin. Given the tight budgets and even tighter resources of many municipalities, these reasons contribute to training becoming one of the first things to be cut, despite its importance.
There are a couple of ways to combat this type of thinking. The first is to appeal to the public-safety officials’ and municipal policymakers’ sense of fiscal responsibility. Recall that the families of 12 New York City firefighters killed on Sept. 11, 2001, filed a $5 billion wrongful death lawsuit against the city and the radio-system vendor, alleging that the system wasn’t working properly at that time, and both the city and vendor were aware of the problems before that fateful day. While executing a comprehensive and ongoing training program could be an expensive proposition, those costs would pale compared to those incurred to fight or settle a multimillion-dollar lawsuit. It’s a message that should resonate with government officials.
If that doesn’t work, get the police and fire chief involved — and make sure they think training is their idea. Finally, remember that training — like a lot of things in the LMR industry — is a long-term proposition, so don’t be deterred by short-term setbacks. Just remember how long we’ve been talking about interoperability.
Steve Proctor is 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. He also has served on the steering committees of the National Coordination Committee, The Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Project SAFECOM.
THE ABCS OF TRAINING
Review its features and components, as well as its care and maintenance. Discuss placement on the body, the use of a speaker microphone and battery life.
Review the channels, emphasizing the site and coverage with which they are associated. Discuss the naming conventions in the radio, e.g., are the channels named the same in each radio so when dispatch instructs users to switch to a specific channel, all users will switch to the same channel?
Discuss the system that supports the radio units. Define coverage expectations and geographical boundaries of the transmitter sites.
Review what happens when the main system fails, i.e., what channel do users switch to when the network goes down?
Discuss what they are and how to work through them.