The Now Possible Dream: Communications Interoperability

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released scorecard assessments, a little more than two years ago, of interoperable communications capabilities in 75 major urban and metropolitan areas nationwide. Those benchmark assessments focused on a broad spectrum of the policies, technology, and training programs needed to enable emergency-services personnel – firefighters and policemen, EMS (emergency medical services) technicians, and emergency managers – from a number of jurisdictions within the same general geographic area to effectively communicate about an incident in real time.

Several years ago the 9/11 Commission also hadentified the lack of interoperable communications as a major impediment to domestic-preparedness capabilities and operations. Numerous reports and recommendations issued following the slow responses after Hurricane Katrina confirmed that finding.  Certainly, as senior government officials knew then – and have confirmed many times since – the lack of interoperability is not a technology problem per se. The technology already available is, in fact, reasonably effective.

However, the Commonwealth of Virginia, using guidelines derived from the federal government’s SAFECOM Program, has started an effort, chaired by Fire Chief Charles Werner of Charlottesville, Virginia, to take interoperability to the next level throughout the country.  Werner is highly regarded as an emergency-services leader who not only “talks the talk” but also “walks the walk.” For that reason alone, other EM officials looking for a model of interoperability are checking for themselves to see what Charlottesville, Albemarle County, and the University of Virginia already have in place.

Several billion dollars in federal grant funds have been allocated in recent years to enhance state and local interoperable communications efforts. Money, like technology, is therefore not the problem. Public funds are available, in fact – even if the nation’s current economic difficulties make the availability of those funds somewhat less likely now than at the time the benchmark assessments mentioned earlier were issued. The funding reviews focus on three principal areas: Governance (leadership and strategic planning); Standard Operating Procedures (plans and procedures); and Usage (use of equipment).

Those evaluation criteria, it is worth noting, were derived directly from the SAFECOM’s Interoperability Continuum and Interoperability Maturity Assessment Model, which analyses the key components of interoperability: governance, standard operating procedures, usage, technology, and training and exercises. As emergency managers are fond of pointing out, interoperability “is 10 percent technology and 90 percent governance and trust.” That axiom is still true today – perhaps more now than ever before.

Goals and Gaps, Findings and Capabilities The key findings of a couple of years ago alsoentified a number of capabilities “gaps” along with several “areas for improvement.” Those findings, which still ring true today, can be summarized as follows:

First, although the policies governing interoperable communications are now in place in all 75 urban and metropolitan areas, the routine periodic tests and exercises needed – to bring disparate systems together and facilitate communications between multi-jurisdictional responders, including those on the state and federal levels – on a regional basis are not being carried out. 

Second, although there is increased and greatly improved cooperation among first responders in the field, the formalized governance (leadership and strategic planning) agreements within and across regions have not been refined to the extent needed to ensure viable communications interoperability on a continuing basis.

The three major national interoperability goals are that:

  1. By 2010, 90 percent of all high-risk urban areas designated within the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) should be able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications interoperability, within one hour, for routine events involving multiple jurisdictions and agencies;
  2. By 2011, 75 percent of all non-UASI jurisdictions are able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications interoperability, also within one hour, for routine events involving multiple jurisdictions and agencies; and
  3. By 2013, 75 percent of all jurisdictions are able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications interoperability, within three hours, of a significant event.

The SAFECOM website ( is a useful self-assessment tool that builds on the original benchmark assessments and will give any jurisdiction a very useful checklist for meeting the interoperability goals.

The website also provides a wealth of information on five additional projects designed and implemented (or in the process of being implemented) to further enhance communications interoperability:

  • The Multi-Band Radio project demonstrates a new radio technology that allows emergency responders to communicate with partner agencies regardless of the radio band on which they operate, and to test the equipment they are using through prototype laboratory testing and evaluation as well as short-term demonstrations and long-term pilot testing.
  • Project 25  is a standards development process introduced to standardize the design, manufacture, and evaluation of interoperable digital two-way wireless communications products created by and for public-safety professionals.
  • Project 25 CAP is a Compliance Assessment Program, established in accordance with the strong encouragement of the U.S. Congress, to ensure that requirements are met. (For operational purposes, the CAP program also serves as a voluntary system by which P25 equipment suppliers can formally demonstrate their products’ compliance.)
  • Video Quality in Public Safety is a collaborative effort between and among the Office for Interoperability and Compatibility, the Institute for Telecommunication Sciences, and the National Institute for Standards and Technology, partnering with various public and private-sector stakeholders in the nation’s public-safety community.
  • The Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) Working Group is a collaboration of public-safety practitioners, industry representatives, and federal partners formed to define and clarify the expectations for VoIP in emergency-response communications.

SAFECOM is, in short, one of those quiet, below-the-horizon, but effective government programs that build not only confidence and competence but also increasingly stronger communications capabilities between and among all emergency-services partners working in the nation’s disaster and emergency-management fields. 

Kay Goss
Kay C. Goss

Kay Goss has been the president of World Disaster Management since 2012. She is the former senior assistant to two state governors, coordinating fire service, emergency management, emergency medical services, public safety, and law enforcement for 12 years. She then served as the Associate Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director for National Preparedness, Training, Higher Education, Exercises, and International Partnerships (presidential appointee, U.S. Senate confirmed unanimously). She was a private sector government contractor for 12 years at the Texas firm Electronic Data Systems as a senior emergency manager and homeland security advisor and SRA International’s director of emergency management services. She is a senior fellow at the National Academy for Public Administration and serves as a nonprofit leader on the Board of Advisors for DRONERESPONDERS International and for the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management. She has also been a graduate professor of Emergency Management at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas for 16 years, İstanbul Technical University for 12 years, the MPA Programs Metropolitan College of New York for five years, and George Mason University. She has been a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) for 25 years and a Featured International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) CEM Mentor for five years, and chair of the Training and Education Committee for six years, 2004-2010.



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