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Progress toward interoperability

Over the past couple months, SEARCH has been involved in a project to research progress toward interoperability in the United States. It is an effort more qualitative than quantitative as compared to, say, the National Interoperability Baseline Survey, but it has provided an opportunity to investigate good success stories.

As a matter of background, the team of four people working on the project has more than 85 years of combined public safety experience and 11 years of recent work with local, state, and federal agencies nationwide to improve communications interoperability. Their experience with first responder agencies truly spans the nation, from Vermont to Alaska, from Guam to St. Thomas, from Los Angeles to New York City, from Las Cruces to Bangor, and from the National Capital Region to New Orleans. Direct experience in the field has come in support of programs of the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security for communications interoperability. All have also served in policy adviser and evaluation roles for these programs, lending a perspective that is as deep as it is broad.

What is Interoperability

In order to embark on even a subjective, qualitative assessment of progress toward interoperability, basic agreement on the key term is needed to assure a common frame of reference. With interoperability, this is problematic because it is a term that has entered the popular lexicon and public imagination due to dramatic events of truly historical proportions. It is a term that has in just a few years come to be overused in many contexts, increasingly seen as hollow by public safety practitioners. It is used by vendors of nearly every conceivable technology and by pundits variously anxious to assign blame, take credit, or otherwise exploit sloganeering rather than study complexities of the issue.

The term interoperability is often simply used in reference to compatibilities across manufacturers of all sorts of technology, their product cycles, and implementations of the technology assembled. My daily Google report on the term “communications interoperability” is filled with many new Web pieces vaguely related to the nation’s pressing public safety needs. Our research focused more broadly on the most pressing and, perhaps, notorious interoperability need: That of emergency responders to communicate.

For purposes of the report, the operative definition was taken from SAFECOM.

Communications interoperability is the ability of public safety agencies to talk across disciplines and jurisdictions via radio communications systems, exchanging voice and/or data with one another on demand, in real time, when needed, and as authorized.

This definition has been consistently and widely dispersed to public safety practitioners nationwide. Its acceptance is, itself, a key step of progress in establishing a national strategy.

Whither Interoperability?

Progress toward interoperability is perhaps best assessed through longitudinal studies examining demonstrated abilities of public safety agencies to work toward common ends. This would assume that “common ends” could be defined in such an objective, quantifiable manner that their attainment was observable and even measurable by degree. More than ever before, a national statement of such common ends exists today for development of supporting services, such as communications. This has occurred through establishment of the National Response Framework (NRF) in January 2008 and preceding work. The NRF and its companion National Incident Management System (NIMS) provide the first comprehensive description of precisely what is being served to interoperate through improved communications.

The significance of these constructs as foundations for improved communications interoperability should not be underestimated. Well beyond communications, their national impact on interoperability, in the most general sense, has been positive and progressive in the past few years. Initial, floundering attempts to improve communications between first responders proceeded upon the notion that with the adoption of sufficiently advanced technology, all the operational details of how, when, why, and to what extent it was used would fall into place. This is despite inexorable experience gained through decades of systems engineering that requirements and functional analysis precedes design. As has been discovered in the past, advanced technology can simply provide a more efficient route to dysfunction.

Ultimately, the goal of communications interoperability is more than the mere ability—it is that emergencies are managed without communications constraints. The measure of success is a lack of problems—that communications meets the needs of incident managers and responders. This implies that the needs for interagency communications are understood and addressed.

True progress is being made in establishing the goal of communications interoperability.

A Summary of Progress

Even if difficult to quantify, progress toward interoperability is evident nationwide. Our research examined six areas of progress: National strategy, governance, standard operating procedures, technology, training and exercises, and usage. The latter five areas are elements of the SAFECOM Interoperability Continuum, a tool broadly used to establish context for the national discussion on the topic. It was used in the report to provide such context for describing progress.

We hope to use this column in the future to share stories of success along each of those lanes along the Continuum. The stories are good and positive. To this observer of communications interoperability, it is truly heartening to see such progress. This month, we’ll focus on the strategy that makes efforts in depth more sensible and coherent.

In summary, a national strategy has been established and promulgated in the past five years. It is increasingly embraced across all levels of government, as is necessary for a subject affecting all individually, each in relationship to the others, and variously depending on agency mission and geographic location. The complexity of the web of requirements woven to meet these interagency needs has come to be understood only recently. It has, unfortunately, been underestimated too often in the past.

Public safety agencies may be relieved that such understanding is encapsulated in a national strategy. It acknowledges and serves the fact that need for communications interoperability is steeply in reverse proportion to the level of government. That is, local interagency communications dramatically outweigh anything among or between state and federal agencies. Not just coincidentally, internal or intra-agency communications of local public safety agencies are even greater yet in volume and often criticality. The strategy acknowledges that without operability, interoperability is mortar without bricks.

Progress: National Strategy

The SAFECOM definition of communications interoperability has provided the singular vision for initiatives at all levels of government. Most of these initiatives involve federal interests only in small part and are federally funded in an equally small share. However, a national vision has proven crucial for development of an ability that cuts across all levels of government, underpins critical services provided to all citizens, and must provide for a nearly infinite variety of combinations and permutations of circumstances.

Federal stewards of the national strategy have been both consistent and persistent in supporting the critical need for a goal to be held visibly forth for all partners. Perhaps more so than in most other areas of public policy, communications capabilities of emergency services agencies are jealously guarded by local, tribal, state, and federal government agencies. Parochialism and interdisciplinary rivalries no doubt still impede interoperability, but hesitancy to join communications forces with cooperators isn’t merely a desire to defend smokestacks. It arises more out of recognition of the inseparable link between command, control, and communications for management of intraagency resources than from fear of loss of authority or responsibility.

Agency heads instinctively tip in the direction of what is needed to accomplish their missions and protect their people. Too often, this has been seen and summarily written off by those who would ask that agencies accept as an article of faith that their critical, internal communications needs will be met if only they will place their eggs in the offering basket of interoperability.

Thankfully, progress has been made in presenting a national vision of joint responsibility for public safety and emergency response. Goals that both agency operability and interoperability are served are increasingly clear. This has occurred through an approach that is fundamentally driven from where the need arises, comprehensive in scope, presented in a context understandable and memorable, supported by rich tools, and doggedly reiterated.

Practitioner-Driven, Outcome-Focused

Progress toward communications interoperability took a decidedly positive turn in December 2003 when SAFECOM and a program of the National Institute for Justice, then known as the Advanced Generation of Interoperability for Law Enforcement (AGILE), convened a meeting of practitioners from across the country to settle on a nationwide strategy for improved communications interoperability. A strategy was put into motion with a vision plus short-, near-, and long-term objectives.

SAFECOM established a practitioner-led executive committee and a broader group now known as the Emergency Response Council (ERC). Both continue to meet regularly. They are effective sources of both original ideas and feedback. The most recent ERC meeting was held in June in Arlington, VA. The level of discussion of needs guided by experienced facilitators was evidence of how far we have come in tackling this problem. The view is persistently on goals, not gilding the lily.

Dr. David Boyd, originator of the program, and now Chris Essid, director of the DHS Office of Emergency Communications where SAFECOM has since been placed, are veritable champions of a practitioner-driven process. The result is that real needs are being met. Please see Dr. Boyd’s article titled, “Multiband Radio Closes Interoperability Gap,” on page 8 of this issue.

A System of Systems

The pivotal 2003 meeting of what would become the ERC adopted a concept of a “system of systems.” The concept has been more commonly used and recognized in the intervening years but was relatively novel at the time. It acknowledged that no one radio system would meet the expansive communications needs of public safety at all levels of government, nationwide. The sheer magnitude of system governance issues involved in a single system is incomprehensible, itself!

Progress is being made in envisioning the technological underpinnings of interoperability as a collection of radio systems and the glue that links them together, in greater and lesser degrees of complexity, not to mention brittleness. But in positing a system of systems, the discussion becomes about more than just the technology. We have written elsewhere that such a system is the functional collection of people, technology, and business processes.

Today we see the concomitant development of national models of information sharing, training and exercises, an incident management system, and common terminology. NIMS, itself, is a fundamental component of the system of systems, not because it has become a cause unto itself, warts and all, but because it gives us a common frame of reference. Designing any complex system for customers with multiple frames of reference is akin to understanding the proverbial report of a committee of blind men describing an elephant—or, in the case of interoperability, an 800-pound gorilla.

We see progressive development of systematic approaches to analyzing communications needs and managing technology lifecycles. For a system of systems to truly flourish, analysis of the individual and collective needs of partners must be rigorous. More broadly, management of systems development must be comprehensive and thorough. Bit by bit this is happening.

Training is the key to a successful system of systems. In different ways, it applies to everyone from statewide interoperability coordinators, to agency chiefs, to technicians, to dispatchers, and responders. NIMS training has made a small but significant dent by providing that common frame of reference. The DHS Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP), described generally here last month, provides another, closely tied framework with an all-important outcome orientation. Throughout all, a broader strategy should prevail so a common destination is in mind.

Nationally, great strides have been made through support of SAFECOM managers in development of the all-hazard Incident Command System (ICS) communications unit leader (COML) training, which has been previously described in this column. A long-established function in ICS, individuals operating fully as COMLs during incidents are effectively the “chief interoperability officers” on scene. Development of the function within NIMS and ICS may be seen as progress in improving both communications operability and interoperability, right along with systems of response management that focus on goals and objectives—in short, strategic management of response.

There is a long way to go in development of the functional collection of people, technology, and business processes that brings an interoperable system of communications systems, but progress is being made.

Memorable Tools, Doggedly Reiterated

National strategy touches ground in many ways from requirements linked to federal funding to broad assessments, such as the National Interoperability Baseline Survey and Tactical Interoperable Communications Scorecards. One would wish, and should have confidence, that such far-reaching initiatives are guided by solid strategy. Even the least of skeptics among us probably wonders if federal attention can be maintained on a problem not amenable to quick fixes.

Time will tell, but the real evidence is in tools built to plow and till this fertile field, then sow seeds for a crop that might be perennially harvested. Resources such as the Interoperability Continuum are the hammer and anvil by which we shape subsequent tools forged by practitioner experience. Guides for writing memoranda of understanding, standard operating procedures, managing interoperability projects, and conducting interoperability exercises arise. In as much as they reiterate and build upon accepted foundations, they contribute to progressive development of even better tools for more complex tasks ahead.

If nothing else, the SAFECOM Program, its managers, and practitioner champions should be recognized for their fortitude in moving forward. This has required building and supporting useful tools that provide a consistent message, built upon and bettered in an iterative fashion.

In Conclusion

Real progress in anything has to be seen in light of the challenges faced along the way. Leadership is about more than meeting those challenges. It is about inspiring others to meet them, too. Strategy takes a vision and provides visible goals and objectives to make it happen.

Progress toward communications interoperability has been made through development and support of a national strategy. Even if not encapsulated in a highfalutin report unlikely to be comprehended or even read, assembled from the top and passed down, it is a strategy consistent in form and message. It is practitioner driven, supports the complex operational needs of agencies on the front lines, and provides tools for forging ahead. It has occurred in an environment scarred by national tragedies and always susceptible to the pollution of political waste.

Communications interoperability will forever be a goal because it is an ideal steady state rather than a destination. Even when we are close to it, our reach should exceed our grasp for all good reasons: We can always do better. Even when as a nation we are close, the foundations will deteriorate unless maintained.

As a strategy is sustained, national progress toward interoperability will continue to be made.

Dan Hawkins is the director of Public Safety Programs for SEARCH, The National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics. He is the author of “Communications Interoperability: A Guide for Interagency Communications Projects,” published by the USDOJ Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and jointly sponsored by the DHS SAFECOM program.

Published in Public Safety IT, Jul/Aug 2008

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