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The 5 Elements to Achieve Interoperability

Members of the public safety community agree that effective communications interoperability begins with technology. However, it is important to understand that technology is only part of the solution. Two recent events illustrate this point.

First, for three weeks in October 2002, local, state, and federal authorities participated in an unprecedented cooperative effort to locate and arrest those responsible for a shooting spree that spanned Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. With more than 300 law enforcement officers responding to incidents along this 125 mile, Interstate 95 corridor, establishing on-scene and task force communications was a daunting task. Fortunately, years of planning by public safety agencies in the region to improve and coordinate their responses paid off, and real-time interoperable communications across jurisdictions was achieved.

Second, when hurricane Ivan devastated the west coast of Florida in 2004, public safety agencies from across the region responded. With communication towers taken down by the storm, first responders were forced to turn to alternative technology, not normally used on a daily basis. Prior training was the key to achieving efficient and effective interoperable communications during the disaster response.
With input from the public safety community, SAFECOM created the Interoperability Continuum as a tool for local, tribal, state, and federal policy makers and public safety leaders to use to address five critical success factors: 1) governance, 2) standard operating procedures, 3) technology, 4) training and exercises, and 5) usage of interoperable communications. These five should be addressed to develop comprehensive interoperability solutions.

It is important to remember that these five success factors are interdependent. For example, when a region procures new equipment, that region should plan training and conduct exercises to ensure the best use of that equipment. To reach the optimal level of interoperability, a region must progress along all five elements of the continuum.


A formal governance structure is critical to the success of interoperability planning. Members of this group will help identify and solve interoperability issues and improve the policies, processes, and procedures of any effort. They will enhance communication, coordination, and cooperation, establish guidelines and principles, and reduce any internal and jurisdictional conflicts.

The governance structure will be most effective if it includes local, tribal, state, and federal representatives from all pertinent public safety disciplines within the identified region.

Standard Operating Procedures

Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are formal written guidelines or instructions for incident response. Typically, SOPs have both operational and technical components.


Although technology is a critical tool for improving interoperability, it is not the sole driver of an optimal solution. Success in each of the other elements is essential to its proper use and implementation and should drive technology procurement. Remember that technology is highly dependent upon existing infrastructure within a region. Multiple technology solutions may be required to support large events.

Training and Exercises

Despite the best planning and technology preparations, there is always the risk of the unexpected. Proper training and regular exercises are critical to the implementation and maintenance of a successful interoperability solution.


Simply put, usage refers to how often interoperable communications technologies are used. Success in this element is contingent upon progress and interplay among the other four elements on the Continuum.

To progress along the five elements of the Continuum and move toward optimal interoperability, users should consider the following principles. First, secure the commitment of leadership from all public safety disciplines (fire, law enforcement, Emergency Medical Services (EMS)). Second, foster collaboration across disciplines (fire, law enforcement, EMS) through leadership support—by working together goals will be reached more effectively and efficiently.

Third, work with policy makers to gain their commitment and resource support—elected and appointed officials need to clearly understand the challenges to and requirements for interoperable communications in order to designate the necessary funding. Fourth, use interoperability solutions on a regular basis – there are many solutions currently available to avoid reinventing the wheel.

Fifth, plan and budget for ongoing updates to systems, procedures, and documentation – interoperability is an ongoing issue that will require continued revisions. Sixth, ensure collaboration and coordination across all elements of the Continuum (Governance, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), technology, training/exercises, usage)—as noted, success occurs when the elements work in concert with one another.

Keys to Success

Communications interoperability is an ongoing process, not a one-time investment. Leaders of this effort will need to be ready to commit the time and resources necessary to ensure success.

Once a governing body is in place, it must be prepared to become the champion of this initiative. Members will need to organize the public safety participants in their region, create an action plan, educate elected and appointed officials about the issue of public safety communications interoperability, and reach out to their peers in other public safety disciplines and jurisdiction to secure their support and participation.

In keeping with its practitioner-driven philosophy, SAFECOM continually solicits feedback from practitioners to ensure the Interoperability Continuum continues to meet the needs of the public safety community. Based on this input, SAFECOM will update and refine the Continuum moving forward.

Dr. David G. Boyd is the Director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate’s Office for Interoperability and Compatibility (OIC) and the Director of the SAFECOM Program Office. A program of the OIC, SAFECOM is managed by DHS and is housed in the Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate.

Published in Law and Order, Aug 2005

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