Rallying the troops for interoperability
For decades, communications interoperability has been a major concern for first responders. The ability of responders to communicate with one another has been hampered by numerous issues, such as the lack of adequate radio channels, frequencies or spectrum; disparate radio systems; and on some occasions, the lack of hardware resources to properly equip personnel.
An even more unfortunate situation exists when organizations have the necessary resources to properly communicate with each other but lack training and knowledge about those resources, which precludes them from achieving communications interoperability.
Eliminating these issues must be a priority to ensure first responders can easily share critical information during day-to-day operations, natural disasters, terrorist acts or other emergency response situations.
As manager of the Radio Services Center in Fairfax County, Va., I recognized this pressing need to address disaster preparedness and interoperability in my surrounding area. To remedy the problem, I organized and completed two rallies that brought together area communications vehicles and personnel to share information and experiences with each other — simply stated, to network.
The key to interoperability is communication, not technology alone. Hosting a rally is an effective way to ensure communications is addressed. Having completed two successful events, I would like to offer some main points to consider should you host such an event in your area.
The last event I held, the 2006 Command, Control and Communications Vehicle Rally, took place on June 16, at the Fairfax County Police Driver Training Facility. Forty-three communications vehicles were at the rally, as well as several local fire, police and national agencies, such as the U.S. Park Police, National Park Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation, American Red Cross, Pentagon Force Protection Agency, Central Intelligence Agency Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security.
These events are becoming increasingly important to ensure that surrounding agencies and jurisdictions can learn how to communicate with one another. The chance for a quick recovery from a disaster increases and probable errors are dispelled when first responders are able to network prior to a disaster.
A grassroots approach is needed to plan such events. The first step is to contact local agencies and gauge their interest in the event. Then, attendance commitments must be made. When choosing the location, you must find a place that is convenient and accessible to the participants. It takes at least six months to organize an event.
Organization is an absolute must when dealing with large groups. Several exercises and demonstrations were organized ahead of time. To ensure the vehicle operators communicated, we held frequent radio checks using various working and tactical channels and local repeaters.
Objectives must be clear and defined. Various types of radios should be available to ensure interoperable communications among participants. A communications leader should be established, a schedule should be in place and the participants should have no option but to network with one another. You also must have a critique form to measure the success of an event.
In my experiences, I have found three specific communications objectives that have enabled the vehicle rallies to be successful in establishing effective communication — operator training, knowledge of resources and joint deployment of available tools. Operator training is job one. During a rally, operators can network to increase their working knowledge of interoperability communications equipment and how to support it. We had the attendees demonstrate how to establish communications between agencies and organizations using their available resources and, if something went wrong, they were able to fix the problem and learn how to prevent it from reoccurring.
I also suggest manufacturers of interoperability and communications products attend the event to offer technical assistance to the participants. Many organizations are buying interoperability equipment but not training their personnel on the equipment. Vendor participation gives such personnel an opportunity to use the vendor’s resources during a demo and ask the proper questions. For example, Raytheon JPS Communications personnel attended the June event to assist participants with technical problems that arose and to offer training and equipment evaluation on the company’s ACU technology.
At the beginning of the vehicle rally, it is important that all of the participants are on the same page. I have found the best method to achieve this is to have an initial briefing at the beginning of the event and to pass out a packet of information to each participant. These packets should include a detailed map of the event, an itinerary, an assignment list, an incident briefing and the critique form to be used at the end. The assignment list should provide the participants with the specific communications tests they are to complete during the exercises, ensuring that each participant has that information on hand.
The appointed communications unit leader should direct the participants on what they must accomplish. The users will need to set up their interoperability devices and establish communications paths. Then, as defined by SAFECOM, the users should demonstrate different methods available for obtaining voice communications interoperability and interoperate with the other agencies at the event.
The second key objective is to demonstrate to the different agencies and jurisdictions what resources are available. Without awareness of available resources, the resources cannot be used to their full ability. During the event, participating agencies should share with one another information on the equipment that has been purchased and its capabilities. This enables the participants to dispel any previous misconceptions and helps them learn how to best use the equipment. Users should demonstrate the different methods available for obtaining voice communications interoperability and show the different levels of interoperability as defined by SAFECOM.
After identifying and understanding the available resources, the third objective concerns deploying these tools in a joint effort to improve communications interoperability. Vehicles often are deployed at an incident, but no structure is followed. When basic incident command structure is lacking, not one person or group is specifically in charge of managing communications. Should this occur, the likelihood of successful communication will diminish.
A vehicle rally encourages the discussion of what to do in the likelihood of an event and how to determine the proper incident command structure. Users should be encouraged to collect data on their local communications resources, including administrative and emergency contact information, so they know their points of contact.
A vehicle rally also is a great time to test other capabilities that are not commonly tested. For example, during the June 2006 event, users demonstrated Web emergency operations center, Wi-Fi and satellite communications capabilities. Video downlinking capabilities from the air to the ground also were tested using the U.S. Park Police Eagle 1 and the Fairfax County Police Department’s FFX 1 helicopters.
At the end of the event, it is important to measure the overall success. As mentioned earlier, each attendee should complete a critique form to gauge what worked, what did not work and to obtain comments and suggestions. The most important measure of success of the event is that the participants leave understanding how to communicate with one another and feel comfortable doing so, creating a win-win situation.
James Wadsworth is manager of the Fairfax County (Va.) Radio Services Center. He has spent more than 35 years in public-safety communications on federal and local levels.