Interoperability: what it means to first responders

CarolinaFireJournal - By Mark Reese
By Mark Reese
01/11/2012 -
Communications in this modern age is something that we take for granted. Imagine what life was like when your grandparents relied on wind-up telephones and the telegraph to talk to family and friends, or to report a problem. image

In many U.S. communities, it wasn’t that long ago that the police officer on the beat had to look for the blinking red light on the top of the town’s water tower to know that an emergency was occurring and that he needed to find a telephone to call his dispatcher to find out where the emergency was. Can anyone remember the loud community sirens to signal the firefighters to go to the station to get the truck and go put out the house fire?

Who could have imagined even a decade ago that we would be talking on a wallet sized telephone in 2011 that you just took out of your pocket to call anyone, at any time of day or night, in any region of the world?

We have also come a long way with our communication systems in the world of public safety, but we are not at the level we need to be yet. We still have work to do.

Step # 1

The first key to working well together in an emergency, or disaster, is the ability to communicate with each other to carry out strategic objectives and operational tasks. This requires that public safety agencies have the ability to talk to one another across the two-way radio system that links each of us to our dispatchers and Incident Commanders regardless of uniform. This is where Interoperability between agencies and 911 Centers is vital to force multiplication. This has to occur daily between disciplines to encourage teamwork and synergy.

This can be achieved by installing the other agency channels into your radio system in your response vehicles. Another added benefit is that you will develop good inter-agency working relationships that will pay off when multiple agencies respond to the same event; it is human nature to work closer with people that you already know.


In many regions, police and fire agencies operate on different radio bands, like VHF and UHF. Some agencies are also digital. The beauty of today’s technology is the ability, or capability, to have ‘metro’ or ‘mutual’ tactical frequencies that regional agencies can switch to in an emergency like a large fire or natural disaster. This allows for good coordination where the ‘rubber meets the road’ at the scene of the event.

What the Federal government has said about Interoperability:

In April 2007, the Government General Accountability Office, GAO, published a report on Communications Interoperability that was titled “FIRST RESPONDERS: Much Work Remains to Improve Communications Interoperability” (GAO-07-301.) The report was very critical of the monies that were given to agencies throughout the U.S. in the form of grants managed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to improve emergency radio systems in the form of radio purchases and infrastructure upgrades so first responders could talk to each other easier. This was definitely a step in the right direction. However, when this report was published, several states had not started using any money towards the goal.

Since 9/11, the federal government has established national emergency management policies to encourage self-sufficiency and mutual aid amongst local and state public safety agencies because initial response in a disaster, or emergency, is always a ‘local’ problem first. These policies include Homeland Security Presidential Directive-5 (2003) and The National Response Framework (2008.) Within these documents are the directives that Incident Command System, ICS, as an example of Interoperability, will be utilized for emergency management and overall incident management across the country.

What is APCO’s position?

The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International, APCO, represents the 911 community in the United States and abroad. (If you go to your local 911 center, you will find that generally dispatchers and communications managers are APCO members. It is the organization that represents this discipline within public safety.) On Nov. 9, 2011, APCO sent a letter to the co-chairs of the U.S. Congress’ Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction asking the committee to include S.911, the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act of 2011, in deficit reduction legislation under consideration. (

APCO has been very supportive of interoperability for many years; they believe in it. I don’t think that you will find many in the communication discipline who don’t want good, across the board, inter-agency communication to occur during an emergency.

Within the letter sent to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction on Nov. 9, APCO states “S. 911 provides first responders with 10 MHz of broadband spectrum, commonly known as the D-block, in order to construct a nationwide interoperable broadband communications network. To pay for the creation of this network, the legislation authorizes the Federal Communications Commission to conduct voluntary incentive auctions of a variety of spectrum. These voluntary auctions are projected by the Congressional Budget Office to raise at least $24.5 billion, of which at least $6.5 billion will go directly to deficit reduction.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

Working together and being able to communicate with each other at the first responder level is the ultimate goal. Over the next few years the ‘push’ will be for interoperability within the public safety radio networks from coast-to-coast. Now is the time for each agency to look at their equipment and inter-agency relationships to strengthen the ties before the emergency event.

Mark D. Reese is a retired Sgt. from the Lane County Sheriff’s Office in Eugene, Oregon. He was also a volunteer firefighter and EMT with McKenzie Fire and Rescue in Walterville, Oregon. Reese has a BA in Management and he has graduated from numerous Emergency Management courses as well as the FEMA Professional Development Series, PDS. He is currently an Emergency Management graduate student at American Military University.
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