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Baseline Survey identifies interoperabiltiy capacities for nations's emergency responders

Written by Dr. David Boyd

This finding is among a series of findings identified by an unprecedented analysis, known as the National Interoperability Baseline Survey. Fielded earlier this year by the Department of Homeland Security’s SAFECOM program, the survey measured the capacity for interoperability among the nation’s emergency response agencies. To achieve a representative sample, SAFE-COM surveyed 22,400 randomly selected law enforcement, fire response, and emergency medical services (EMS) agencies nationwide. The landmark survey had a response rate of 30% with participation, nearly evenly split between law enforcement and fire response/EMS agencies.

Comparison by Discipline for Population Distribution and Survey Respondent Pool

Responses from the 6,816 participating emergency response agencies helped provide a statistical snapshot of communications interoperability capacity for emergency response agencies across the nation. SAFECOM supplemented this online survey data with results from field studies—interviews and anecdotal responses from homeland security directors across the nation.

The Baseline Survey was designed in partnership with the emergency response community. The survey assessed capacities across a wide spectrum of interoperability factors, making it the first interoperability assessment derived from a comprehensive definition of interoperability. It was founded on the five elements graphically depicted in SAFECOM’s Interoperability Continuum—governance, standard operating procedures (SOPs), technology, training and exercises, and usage of interoperable communications.

Making progress in each of these elements is essential because they are interdependent. Baseline Survey questions assessed agencies’ stages of development for sub-elements in each of the five elements. The study accounted for three “levels” of interoperability: across disciplines, across jurisdictions, and among agencies of the same discipline across state and local governments.

Another finding was that emergency response agencies demonstrate higher levels of development in technology than in any other interoperability element. The visibility and tangibility of technology issues may account for this. Although technology is a critical tool for improving interoperability, it is not the sole component required to achieve an optimal solution. Agencies that have achieved advanced technology solutions frequently have active decision making groups, fully developed and deployed strategic plans, and adequate funding.

Survey findings indicate that for many agencies, funding remains a formidable challenge to deploying needed systems and equipment.

A plurality of agencies—43%—have no or some funding available to acquire one-time capital investments, such as equipment and radios. Another 37% noted they did have some funding allocated, but that it does not meet their needs. Similarly, only 7% of emergency response agencies report that their operating cost funding for interoperability equipment meets current requirements.

As lasting funding challenges indicate, securing collective leadership and support is critical to advancing interoperable communications. Indeed, governance decisions drive the conception, design, and implementation of interoperable capabilities. Establishing a common governance structure will improve communication, coordination, and cooperation across regions and disciplines essential to achieving a minimum level of communications interoperability. A governing body should consist of local, tribal, state, and federal bodies, as well as representatives from all pertinent emergency response disciplines within an identified region.

A positive finding is that emergency response agencies are making progress in establishing multi-jurisdictional, multi-disciplinary governance structures. More than half of surveyed emergency response agencies reported participating in a mix of formal and informal decision-making groups—cross-discipline partnerships of emergency response practitioners and leaders who share their expertise to improve interoperable communications.

Many emergency response agencies have developed agreements among disciplines and jurisdictions to ensure the availability and proper use of interoperability in emergency response communications. Still, there is room for improvement. Informal, undocumented agreements tend to outnumber published, active agreements among all pertinent organizations. Further, for all levels of interoperability, a plurality of respondents says it has no strategic plans in place or, at most, some planning efforts may have begun. Only 20% of agencies have strategic plans in place to ensure interoperability across disciplines, and 19% have plans to ensure interoperability across jurisdictions.

Strategic Planning

For state-local interoperability, that proportion falls slightly, to 16%.

Baseline Survey findings indicate that only a small percentage of emergency response agencies have formalized SOPs and actually conduct exercises. Interoperability training for personnel who support emergency responders in the field is critical, as they often play a direct role in establishing and maintaining interoperable communications. “Formal” training includes a lesson plan and an assessment of student performance that “informal” training does not include. Both types of training may occur on the job. Needs for training tend to be urgent because training is often a near-term requirement and is often difficult to arrange.

Training for Support Personnel

Only 19% of surveyed emergency response agencies reported that all support personnel have received formal, regular training. The smallest agencies appear to face particular challenges; just 47% report that their support personnel have received, at most, informal training on interoperability.

Depending on an agency’s technology approach, responders may play a direct or indirect role in establishing and maintaining interoperable communications. Patterns for training police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians mirror data reported for training support personnel. About two in five agencies (41%) report that their field personnel have received, at most, informal training on interoperability. A slightly smaller number (36%) report that some of their personnel have received formal training. One in of five agencies (20%) report that substantially all field personnel have received formal training.

Emergency response agencies often have so much required annual training (e.g., weapons training for law enforcement) that little time is left for discretionary training in interoperability. As with support personnel, surveyed responders agreed that new training must be provided when new communications systems are installed.

Exercises are more time-consuming and resource-intensive than training, so it is perhaps not surprising that emergency responders’ participation in various levels of exercises is even less pervasive than interoperability training. More than half of emergency response agencies do not regularly participate in exercises designed to test and validate interoperability solutions. About 84% of agencies that have conducted some sort of exercise say that their exercises are compliant with the National Incident Management System.

Exercises

To make progress in training and exercises, a high degree of coordination and integration of interoperable equipment is essential. As communities become adept in using local interoperability solutions, they can expand training and exercises to involve cross-jurisdictional and cross-disciplinary factors.

Strengthening training and exercises is linked to technology advances because it ensures that responders in the field are familiar with new technology as it is acquired. Without training, responders will not be able to effectively use new technologies during a major incident.

Clear and effective SOPs are equally essential in the development and deployment of any interoperability solution. SOPs are one of the more difficult interoperability factors to develop because they rely heavily on the technology deployed or the current operational environment in place.

It is therefore not surprising that survey findings indicate that about half of all emergency response agencies do not use formal—those that are published and active—SOPs, but rather rely on informal SOPs to support interoperable communications.

Command and Control SOPs

Findings for command and control SOPs—protocols to manage communications during collective incident response—reveal similar gaps. Fortunately, SOPs are one of the first areas where immediate improvements can be made without making a large financial investment.

For each of the survey’s interoperability elements, emergency response agencies have made more progress in cross-discipline and cross-jurisdiction interoperability than they have in communications among state and local government agencies. The contrast between interlocal communications and state-local communications is particularly evident in use of interoperable communications. About 65% of the agencies report that they interoperate with some degree of regularity at the cross-discipline or cross-jurisdiction level, but for state-local communications, 48% of agencies indicate that there is little to no usage of interoperable communications.

The infrequent use of interoperable communications among state and local government agencies may be driven by need—state and local agencies may not work together frequently enough to encourage more advanced approaches to interoperability.

Frequency of Use and Familiarity

Ideally, emergency response agencies will use interoperability equipment and procedures daily. However, this has been difficult for some areas of the nation—fewer than 12% of agencies use interoperability solutions regularly for all incident types.

Survey data show a strong relationship between usage of interoperable communications and five areas of interoperability—approaches, implementation, exercises, command and control, and SOPs. Agencies with a more well-developed approach to all five of these activities tended to report greater frequency of use and familiarity.

By providing a clear picture of current interoperability capabilities, the Baseline Survey findings help equip emergency response leaders and policy-makers with the essential, foundational needed to evaluate next steps and define future milestones. Tools and resources to address many of the gaps highlighted in the Baseline Survey findings are available immediately on the SAFECOM program Web site at www.safecomprogram.gov.

SAFECOM would like acknowledge the personnel in the more than 6,800 participating emergency response agencies for their time and thoughtful answers to the Baseline Survey. Each response aided SAFECOM in creating a national picture of interoperability.

SAFECOM, a communications program of the Office for Interoperability and Compatibility (OIC), with its federal partners, provides research, development, testing and evaluation, guidance, tools, and templates on communications-related issues to local, tribal, state, and federal emergency response agencies. The Department of Homeland Security’s OIC is managed by the Science and Technology Directorate. For more information about the SAFECOM program, visit www.safecomprogram.gov or call (866) 969-SAFE.

Dr. David Boyd is director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Command, Control and Interoperability Division, and the Office for Interoperability and Compatibility. He previously served as director of Science and Technology for the National Institute of Justice and served on the White House National Science and Technology Council, the National Security Council Committee on Safety and Security of Public Facilities, and on the Justice Department’s Technology Policy Council.


Published in Public Safety IT, Jan/Feb 2007

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