There are many articles regarding the subject of interoperability that have been written by many very knowledgeable people within the radio systems field. Hopefully this article provides you a short summary of the interoperability issues that can at least give the reader a simple understanding of the term and bring your attention to how important it is to emergency services and where you can look for more information.
The use of wireless communications technology within the public safety community continues to play a major role in creating safer operations. When every second counts, having reliable communications equipment can make the difference to improve incident safety.
Most agencies currently use some form of wireless communications technology, with the main area of concern being interoperability, emergency personnel need systems that are reliable, expandable and mobile.
The typical low-tech solution of connecting incompatible radio systems is to use a switch box to piece together push-to-talk (PTT) audio from different systems. These can literally be cords that connect one group of public-safety radios to another. They can also be actual devices like an audio bridge into which dissimilar radios all connect, like an old-fashioned telephone exchange.
One problem with this solution is that the originating radio system has no knowledge of the destination radio system, which hampers its ability to provide reliable transmission. For instance, the target channel on the destination system may be busy with another transmission, but without this knowledge there is no way to buffer the audio until the channel is free, which will cause portions of audio to be lost.
While the term interoperability was initially defined for information technology or systems engineering usefulness to allow information exchanges, a wider definition would include taking into account community, governmental, and emergency services factors that impact equipment to equipment performance, when the components are technically different and operated by different agencies.
Interoperability is an important matter for fire departments, EMS, law enforcement, public health agencies, safety departments and transportation departments, because agencies need to communicate during wide-scale events. It has been a considerable area of investment and research since 911.
Traditionally, emergency services could not exchange information because they operated generally dissimilar hardware that is conflicting. Public safety information systems such as computer-aided dispatch systems (CAD) and records management systems (RMS) operate separately, so-called “information refuge.”
Cities, county governments and various public safety departments tried to span this separation with inefficient, makeshift methods while some departments began implementing limited interoperable systems.
The lack of interoperability came up again when public safety departments operated during the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina disaster and recently with the devastating hurricanes of 2017 and 2018.
An estimated $306 billion in losses made 2017 the most expensive year ever for natural disasters with 2018 looking like it will exceed those numbers. In response, FEMA announced in June 2018 that it was streamlining its mission to focus on coordination with state and local governments before major events strike to shorten disaster recovery times. Today, it’s more important than ever that state, local and federal agencies adequately prepare for the unknown, and ensure that they can communicate with all involved.
There are many choices of systems and equipment out there from reasonable costs to very expensive. Agencies looking to improve their ability to operate with other agencies should spend a large amount of time researching first the needs of your agency, then the companies that supply the various equipment and systems that can meet your needs and budgets.
Dan J. Cimini is retired chief of Surfside Beach Fire Department with 53 years of career and volunteer service. He is past president of the South Carolina Fire Chiefs Association and past president of the Horry Georgetown County Fire Chiefs Association.