After 9/11, when first responder radio interoperability jumped to the top of Washington’s priority list, “The federal government did what it does best,” said James Wadsworth, manager of the Fairfax County, VA Radio Services Center.
“Seeing that the problem was perceived to be a lack of interoperable radio equipment, the federal government provided significant amounts of grant funding to public safety agencies so that they could buy interoperability equipment.
Unfortunately, many agencies [that] received this equipment still don’t know how to operate it or have found that it hasn’t produced the end results they were expecting. This is why Fairfax County has started holding annual Command, Control, and Communications Vehicle Rallies at its Police Driver Training Facility.
The idea behind the rally is simple. Bring together as many people with interoperable radio equipment as possible, be they portable Incident Commanders’ Radio Interfaces or large Command Platforms fitted with multiple Raytheon JPS Com-munications’ACU-1000s, throw in some manufacturer reps as advisers, then work together to use this equipment.
That’s precisely what happened when 43 communications vehicles converged on the Police Driver Training Facility, a 1.25-mile track where Fairfax County police develop their driving skills. The agencies that took part covered the entire first responder spectrum. They included the FBI, CIA, DHS, the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, Red Cross, National Park Service, various state police agencies, the Virginia and Maryland Departments of Transportation, and local fire, police and sheriffs’ departments.
“We had three objectives,” said Wadsworth, who organized the event. “The first objective was operator training, to get the users to understand what they can and can’t do with radio interoperability equipment. The second was show decision-makers what other departments had chosen and were doing in radio interoperability, and the third was to educate first responder engineers and technicians by jointly conducting an interoperability exercise right there and then.”
To make this happen, rally personnel broke the participants into small groups. Aided by knowledgeable radio managers and manufacturer reps, their task was to learn how to use the equipment they brought to the rally to talk to each other. “They arrived here at 7:30am, and by 11am, they had to be able to talk to everyone else by radio,” Wadsworth said. “By 11, that’s exactly what they did.”
Vendors On Hand But Not Selling
Given the importance of training at the Fairfax County rally, it made sense for Wadsworth to ask technical reps from Raytheon JPS Communications (ACU-1000), Communications-Applied Technology (Incident Commanders’ Radio Interface), Motorola, and other interop equipment vendors to take part in the event. “However, they were only here to assist with training, not to sell their products,” Wadsworth said. “We didn’t want this to turn into a trade show.”
The training sessions at the rally made it clear that interop knowledge levels varied widely among first responders. “We had one agency come to the rally with interop equipment that simply didn’t work because of how it was set up,” Wadsworth said. “Others were able to make some connections but still needed help in configuring their equipment properly.”
In all these cases, the first responders who came in lacking knowledge left equipped with it, which is entirely the value of events such as these. “This is why vendors such as Raytheon, Motorola and Communications-Applied Technology held classes before the rally to provide truly detailed education to their users,” he said. The point of the event was not to make people feel bad about their ignorance—after all, many had not been trained to begin with—but to help them replace it with the right information.
“We don’t send firefighters to fight fires without training them how to use their equipment,” said Roman Kaluta, Raytheon JPS Communications’ director of interoperability solutions. “The same should be true for first responders and interoperability equipment.”
Results, and Planning Your Own Rally
As was the case at the 2005 rally, the results of the 2006 event speak for themselves. “Those who took part succeeded in communicating interoperability with each other at the event,” Wadsworth said. “This meant that they learned how to set up their equipment to work with each other; whether that meant setting up a switch, a patch, or an audio bridge.”
Clearly, these results are exactly what are needed nationwide. This begs a question: How can other police departments set up their own Command, Control, and Communications Vehicle Rallies?
“The first thing to know is that such events don’t have to cost money,” Wadsworth said. Using e-mail, telephone, and homemade Web sites, first-responder departments can throw together events for free, especially if they stage them on their own property.
“It is important to get agencies to commit to coming,” Wadsworth said. “As well, you need to select a location that is as convenient as possible. You should also allow at least six months lead time for booking the event to get everything organized and to ensure room in people’s schedules.”
Once an event is on the books, it is important to plan what is going to be taught and by whom. “The objectives need to be carefully thought out in terms of what people need to learn and how you can be sure they have learned it,” he said. To this end, Fairfax County issues critique forms to its participants so that they can evaluate the event when it’s over.
Next is the decision as to which vendors to invite. “We tend to focus on those manufacturers whose equipment is widely used by our participants,” Wadsworth said. “This ensures that we have the knowledge base at hand to answer questions, to help configure and optimize equipment.”
Once this is done, someone has to be designated as a communications leader to keep everyone informed as to how the event is unfolding. A schedule should also be established and distributed, and “the participants should have no option but to network with each other,” he noted. Finally, some sort of critique form should be given out at event’s end, so the organizers can find out what worked and what didn’t.
Even without a budget, it may be possible to have local food vendors provide promotional food and drink. (McDonald’s is often quite happy to provide drinks for good causes.) The key is to clear such deals with your department first before approaching vendors so there aren’t any questions about conflict of interest. If this proves to be a concern, invited manufacturers may want to throw together ad hoc barbeques to keep everyone fed and attentive.
The Need for Rallies
The fact that Fairfax County gets such a good turnout to its events and that first responders and manufacturers are so eager to take part speaks volumes about the value of communications vehicle rallies. Moreover, bringing federal, state, and local agencies together in a non-emergency setting is a good way to open channels of communications that could pay off later during mutual aid situations.
This is why such rallies should become a priority for police nationwide. These events go a long way into making interoperability work, on so many levels. Best yet, they can be staged essentially for free!
James Careless is a freelance writer who specializes in first responder communications issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.