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Walking the Talk

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Interoperability among first responders is a state of mind. That is, the ability of emergency incident commanders to talk to their counterparts in other jurisdictions and disciplines is not simply a matter of buying new equipment.

According to a December 2006 Homeland Security Department survey, technology is where the nation is furthest along in meeting interoperability goals. Where first responder agencies lag the most is in areas such as standard operating procedures and policy, training and use.

When DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff announced in November 2006 that 46 major U.S. cities should achieve interoperability by the end of 2007, he wasn't emphasizing technology upgrades.

"People tend to think about it as, 'We've just got to find the right radio or the right communications device,' " Chertoff told reporters at a Jan. 3 news conference. They tend to forget the governance and policy-making aspects of it, he added.

According to DHS' "National Interoperability Baseline Survey," about two-thirds of first responder agencies can establish at least some crossover communications before a major planned event. What's mostly missing is a way to integrate that capacity into day-to-day operations.

Interoperability "is primarily a matter of leadership," says David G. Boyd, director of DHS' Office for Interoperability and Compatibility. Not to say that today's technology is ideal. Incidents or events still require heaps of different equipment, it seems. Watch first responders in action, and you'll often see a surfeit of gear -- handsets, radios dangling from belt loops, crackling earpieces -- which has piled up for decades.

"Every time we went out, we had to figure out which [radio device] to take," recalls George W. Foresman, DHS undersecretary of preparedness, who 20 years ago was a medical services first responder. Indeed, 38 percent of agencies surveyed said their solution for interoperable communications across disciplines (say, between the police and fire department) is to share their radio devices.

Still, about 40 percent have cross-discipline equipment that's compatible and 8 percent have an advanced infrastructure solution. One caveat, however: The survey "may have a slightly optimistic bias" because those who responded might have slightly more advanced capacity than people who chose not to participate, the report notes.

Frustrating for many observers is that shifting the interoperability discussion to leadership takes it away from relatively simple issues, such as buying gear, to complex organizational challenges. For the $2 billion to $3 billion that DHS has doled out to local government for interoperable communications, "we could be a little further ahead," says Mark Ghilarducci, vice president at Washington-based emergency management consulting firm James Lee Witt Associates.

The problem is that technology is easy to change. "The market is for fully interoperable communication systems," Foresman says. Manufacturers do what they are asked. With roughly half the public safety agencies slated to replace their systems over the next five years, agencies will have even more technology.

But merely replacing systems won't result in interoperability, warns Boyd, adding that agencies "need to design it into their plans."

 
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