September 11, 2001 is a day seared into America’s heart. That day many of New York City’s brave first responders lost their battle to save others. Most missed important radio communication warnings of the twin tower’s degradation and potential collapse…the reason being a lack of interoperability between disparate radio systems operating on different frequency bands while using different technologies.
In response, the Department of Homeland Security initiated a program of federal grants to allow agencies to improve radio communications and bridge obvious gaps in technology. Initially, this work embodied the procurement and installation of electronic, computer-controlled patch technologies. These radio-to-radio patching schemes allowed both individual RF channels as well as talk groups resident within disparate trunked radio systems to be bridged into ad-hoc networks. Later, federal grant funding sources were expanded whereby regionalization of new radio systems became possible, thereby consolidating previously separate “stovepipe” systems into shared community networks. Intrinsically, having all public safety agencies in a region using a shared radio infrastructure brings about the potential for interoperability.
Those two steps - patch technologies and integrated, shared systems – should have solved the radio interoperability dilemma, right? Nope. The reason is that interoperability is not merely a technological problem since the ability to patch radio systems or construct large, shared networks existed years before September 11, 2001. The continued lack of functional interoperability today is a people problem that cannot be solved solely through improved or enhanced technology.
While Interoperability involves the ability for seamless radio communications across agency lines, agency operations often discourage cross communications. If field users are required to be under the continuous care of its agency’s radio dispatchers and immediately respond to a dispatcher’s call - which can occur at any time - there is lessened opportunity to participate in cross-agency actions that could benefit from a mutual aid response. Consider this: if Agency A’s personnel don’t know much about Agency B’s operations, field personnel, or response protocols, they are less likely to intrude and more likely avoid cross-agency communications. When an event occurs that demands across-agency communications, field users may not know what talk group or channel to select, who to call, or how to engage an outside-agency’s resources.
Many of these issues can be resolved by developing appropriate standard operating procedures between agencies. These take time to develop (months, typically) and a true commitment to get the process done and done right. Keep in mind, the best communications solution is one that seamlessly blends operable and interoperable communications as one. Further, the human element requires repetitive functional training of the radio system so when an operational anomaly occurs, people know what to do, when and how.
Effective training programs are costly due to the numbers of paid personnel involved, across multiple agency disciplines. Correspondingly, the temptation is high to utilize ‘tabletop’ exercises that focus on event mitigation. Rarely, though, do tabletop exercises consider the sudden and unpredictable loss of radio communications…which is a real possibility in many environmental catastrophes. It is not enough to plan for evacuations and emergency response without gauging abilities to improvise and work around sudden radio system failures. Developing and maintaining such skill requires true in-field exercises where people know only the beginning of the script and the desired end outcome, but then must apply individual knowledge and skill to overcome sudden adversity.
While technological resources are certainly key parts of an effective response solution, no amount of equipment can overcome the human condition of not knowing how to use communication tools effectively or the inability to think on one’s feet. These skills must be taught and reinforced through rigorous training. While recent infrastructure funding opportunities are geared toward equipment purchase and renewal, radio system managers should lobby hard to secure enhanced funding for effective radio user training. The human element cannot be resolved solely through technology --- yet.