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The Other Communications Aspect of the Public-Safety Radio System
Much has been written about planning and implementing public safety radio systems. From the promise of new technologies, the availability of RF (radio frequency) spectrum, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations, the complicated grant funding process, just to name a few. However, an effective education and outreach campaign is a crucial component that is often overlooked during the complicated planning and implementation of these systems. A successful education and outreach campaign does not simply describe the technical details of the system to those inside the process. Rather, it must take the human element into account, and effectively speak at a level that everyone can understand. It is critically important to describe the goals of the project in terms that a non-technical audience can grasp in order to identify what should be expected at the successful conclusion of the project.
There are many benefits to taking the proactive step of communicating with key constituents and communities throughout the radio implementation process. First and perhaps most importantly, the goal is to properly set expectations. Next, conduct a coordinated education and outreach campaign that will keep the progress of the project open and transparent. If executed properly, end users, the public, the local media and key elected officials and executives will be well-versed in the radio system, and will be able to follow its progress from the planning stage to system acceptance and successful project completion.
The Planning Stage – Communicating the Need for a New Radio System
Early in the planning phase, the procuring agency should designate a project manager and a primary spokesperson, often referred to as the public information officer (PIO), who will be the principal communicator for the project. This person will be an informational resource for the public, elected officials and local media who should regularly provide updates on the background and goals of the project and its progress. Together, the project manager and primary spokesperson will work closely throughout the process to communicate important information to targeted constituencies in a consistent, coordinated manner.
The spokesperson/PIO and the agency must identify their targeted constituencies early and determine the best way to effectively and consistently communicate with those audiences. In most cases, the users, general public and local legislators or commissioners will want to be kept up-to-date on project progress in a timely fashion. It is also important to remember that other organizations, such as local businesses, neighborhood groups or environmental organizations may want to be informed on how the agency and the project is utilizing local workers and businesses and any potential impact the system will have on the local economy or the environment.
Once key audiences have been identified, the agency must determine the best ways to reach and educate them. These may include establishing and maintaining an informational website or by attending city council meetings or town hall-style roundtables. It is imperative to provide a forum where people can ask questions and speak directly with agency and system supplier representatives about their concerns. While not as effective a tool for two-way communications, the media is often the primary way in which most citizens in a community receive their news. Local newspapers and television network affiliates are great conduits to reaching wide audiences, and reporters are often interested in writing about the progress of a radio system implementation.
Due to the technical aspects involved with public safety radio systems, the PIO may initially choose to contact a local media representative, beginning with reporters focused on technology. A reporter who routinely describes computer networks or consumer electronics technology will be more likely to understand the advances in digital wireless communications and Internet Protocol (IP) networks that will likely be involved in the new public safety radio system. The spokesperson/PIO may also elect to contact a business reporter to discuss local jobs that will be supported by the construction of the new network, or technical training that will be provided to allow local service technicians to maintain the new communications network.
Once these feature reporters have begun to publish initial news pieces detailing the beneficial aspects of the new system, other news outlets in the area will have a positive baseline of news that will serve as the starting point for their future coverage. Resulting news attention will then focus on the expected improvements of the new system over the old. Typical benefits of newer technology include improved interoperability between police and fire departments, high-speed data access, such as the capability to access secure public safety databases, or the ability to maintain uninterrupted communications while traveling across a large regional or state-wide area.
The Procurement Stage – Continuing Open and Transparent Communications
The procurement stage of a new radio system project can be a very sensitive time. It is during the procurement stage that the agency releases an RFP (request for proposal) and interested suppliers respond with their proposals for designing, constructing and servicing the new system. Typically the selection committee will evaluate both the technical and financial aspects of suppliers’ proposals. Based upon a predetermined scoring methodology that usually includes the technical and financial aspects of proposals, the system contract is awarded to the supplier with the highest total score. At this time, the agency and supplier enter contract negotiations to finalize the system design, implementation schedule, terms and conditions of the contract, price and the agreed-upon system acceptance plan.
It is especially important for the agency to communicate how the system will be funded throughout the project, but especially during the procurement stage. Many question the need and feasibility of a new radio project, and will want to know how tax revenue is contributing to it, and if grant funds are being used. It is best for the spokesperson/PIO to provide high-level details, both proactively and when asked, about who is paying for the new radio system, and fully explain how the agency and the supplier are working together to put a fiscally responsible radio system in place.
Design and Build-out – Keeping Important Audiences Informed
The system implementation stages, which include the design and actual construction of the system, follow the official signing of the contract with the technology partner. During these stages, the agency must communicate its progress, both positive and negative, to key audiences. It is often at this point that users, the public and local legislators are most interested in how the project is progressing, because significant resources are being dedicated to the new system, and how its components are being put into place.
The agency needs to remain proactive in communicating this information. There are a number of channels that can be used, including traditional channels like local media outlets or participating in town meetings. For instance, the agency can work with the technology partner to coordinate local demonstrations of the technology, open to the public and the media. The agency can also have a dedicated page on its or the community’s website where it posts information about the implementation, including a system description, educational videos, a projected timeline, progress reports, coverage maps and models, and FAQs.
Non-traditional media, or social media, channels can play an important role in the education and outreach initiative. Locally themed blogs often report on happenings in the town, city, county or state, and monitoring and/or communicating with those blogs can ensure they are sharing correct information with their readers. The agency can even use these blogs as their own communication methods, where the communicator can post updates on the implementation and testing of the system. The agency can also use its own Facebook page or Twitter account, or one dedicated to the radio project, to push out updates and share important information. No matter what method the agency chooses, it must stay on top of disseminating appropriate information to its key audiences throughout the build-out.
System Acceptance and Project Completion – Continued Communication
Once the system has been completely implemented, the agency will then execute the system acceptance test plan that was included as part of the contract. This system acceptance plan is critical in that it verifies that the system is performing as contracted. System acceptance is a formal contractual step and is often the milestone associated with final payment. It is critically important that communication with interested parties is maintained during this time because system acceptance is tied to final payment. Furthermore, system acceptance is tied to the expectations of the project, as defined in the system planning phase. For instance, if the expectation is for 95 percent radio coverage throughout the area, and that requirement is included in the contract with the supplier, then the communicator should make that important fact known to key audiences.
Once the new radio system is accepted, agency users will gradually migrate over from the legacy system, and ownership of the new system often transfers to the agency procuring the system. Even though the implementation process is complete, the education and outreach campaign must continue. The agency must keep important system information accessible to the general public, and remain available to answer questions and offer information proactively. Even if the general public’s interest in the system has waned, citizens and legislators will know where they can go if they need or want information about the system.
Furthermore, the ongoing campaign will also serve to inform and educate newly elected legislators as they come into office. An education and outreach campaign can be a powerful tool in a radio system implementation. An effective and transparent effort helps build trust in the project from the community, the local government and end users by keeping them informed and updated. Ultimately, education and outreach will help avoid obstacles that can delay the project completion and impact the quality of communications for first responders.
Steve Frackleton is the director of marketing and communications for Harris Public Safety and Professional Communications. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Published in Public Safety IT, Nov/Dec 2011
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