Interoperability: how well do we work together?

CarolinaFireJournal - By Damian Owens
By Damian Owens
01/10/2013 -

The need for improved communication among public safety agencies continues to be an important issue in the post 9/11 era. Interoperability or a lack thereof came to light during the responses to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Since then, interoperability issues and frustration over poor communication continue to emerge in large scale incidents and natural disasters, especially those that require the interaction of multiple agencies. Lack of interoperability is often a hindrance in many incidents of national significance, including the Oklahoma City Bombing, the Columbine School shooting, and most recently the Aurora Colorado Theater shooting. 


“It is not a question of how well each process works; the question is how well they all work together.”— Lloyd Dobyns and Clare Crawford-Mason, Thinking About Quality

While large scale incidents seem to gain a lot of attention and criticism with respect to interoperability, many small scale incidents experience poor communication or operability issues on a daily basis. Interoperability is not a new problem for emergency responders. Communication issues among the public safety sector have been around for many years. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, interoperability was not a high priority. In the years following, the federal government took steps to improve interoperability among emergency responders. The Department of Homeland Security was established, and among other things was tasked with improving interoperability and with this came massive amounts of funding to support interoperable communications. Early DHS solutions seemed to revolve around deploying new equipment to improve obsolete or incompatible systems. Many improvements have been made over the years, but there is still much that can be done to improve interoperability and overall incident communications and management.

Interoperability seems to be the latest “buzzword” used to describe communication difficulties between various public safety agencies, across all jurisdictions and disciplines. The goal of interoperability is the collaborative ability of public safety agencies to communicate and to share data with each other. Interoperability has become a catch all phrase used to describe communication failures at significant incidents. Research and case studies point out that while there is a need to improve communication infrastructure across the country, interoperability is not the only place for improvement. A prerequisite for interoperability is that agencies must be able to work together first. Modern technology alone cannot improve communications between agencies if they are unable to get along and work together. Numerous other factors lead to inadequate communications and poor incident management. Human behavior during incidents, lack of command and operating procedures, and the failure of organizations to effectively work together are all issues that should be addressed when making improvements to organizational interoperability. Most often these sources of conflict among agencies occur because of cultural differences or differences in operational practices. Consider your own experience in working with other organizations. Do issues such as competition and territorialism come to mind? What about turf wars or the overriding issue of “who is actually in command”? For interoperability to work, organizations must work through these issues and establish policies and procedures to address the command responsibilities and reporting relationships. Many public safety agencies share boundaries and compete for tax revenue funding. The public wants and expects the public safety providers to work together in the best interest of the public.

To overcome some of the obstacles to interoperability organizations should commit to joint training and planning exercises and find ways to work around any organizational or cultural differences. Interoperability exercises and communications training among agencies will increase the confidence and competence of the involved parties. Don’t wait for a complex incident to test your communications system or your ability to work together. Build those relationships in advance, and test your command and communications systems. Identify any weaknesses and take action to improve upon or work through organizational conflict. Failure to train and plan for multi-agency responses will most likely result in confusion, operational differences and poor decision making. Once effective relationships have been developed, agencies will realize the benefits of better communication and coordination, which will lead to an effective operation and improve responder safety.

There are several principles of interoperability that should be noted. Agencies must assess their own operational needs when making decisions concerning interoperability needs. What agencies are most likely to be needed or respond to incidents in their jurisdiction? Where do other agencies fit into the overall command and control structure? What assets or compatible communications equipment does each agency bring? Is there a need for coordinated training and planning with other agencies? Additionally, agencies wishing to improve communications should consider their current obstacles to interoperability as well as the benefits of an improved communications infrastructure. Improved interoperability allows for better and more accurate exchange of information, which in turn results in effective resource management, assignment of tasks and objectives and successful mitigation of the incident. Interoperability among responding agencies is critical to the command and control functions of large scale events. It also enhances responder safety and accountability!

To summarize, frustration caused by poor communication and a lack of interoperability is nothing new to emergency responders and will continue to have an impact on responses to large scale incidents. As emergency service providers we must commit to not only using the best technology available, but we must also commit to working with our partner agencies to resolve organizational conflict and differences that may adversely affect incident outcomes. Take action to establish relationships with agencies that you may be required to work with during incidents that impact your community. Overtime, as these relationships are established thru training and planning, you will discover that each agency shares the common goals of operational efficiency and responder safety. When considering interoperability and your departments role, remember, it is not always about having the best radios or communication infrastructure. More importantly, it’s about your ability to work together so that you may achieve positive incident outcomes.

Battalion Chief Damian Owens is a 17 year veteran of the Charlotte Fire Department, and has a B.S. in Fire Safety Engineering Technology from UNC-Charlotte. He is currently a graduate student at UNC-Charlotte in the MFPA program.
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