By Capt. Eddie Reyes
Sponsored by Cisco Systems
Shortly after the worst terrorist attack on United States soil in 2001, the Federal government began to build a foundation whose final mission would be to establish a well defined and coordinated effort to wrangle in the thousands of disparate communications systems across the country, which were hardly interoperable at the time, and start making some sense of this public safety communications fiasco that existed. This effort included a focus on the lack of governance and communications/interoperability policy and procedure. Most importantly, this long range plan focused on the planning and training of personnel and equipment.
It has been said before, that the only positive effect that came out of the terrible attacks on September 11th is that public safety’s secret was out: most public safety agencies could not talk to each other (at least not seamlessly) during a crisis and no one had really done anything about it up until that point. Up until that point, most of our agencies did not possess the capability for car-to-car or person-to-person radio communication with their neighboring jurisdictions. Unfortunately some agencies still do not possess this capability today.
In the Early Days
As early as 1999, the US Department of Justice, through the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), developed a program known as AGILE: Advanced Generation of Interoperability for Law Enforcement. Because terrorism on US soil was not a reality at that time, AGILE focused on communications issues during natural disasters, high-speed pursuits and other critical incidents that span jurisdictional boundaries.
This initiative began focusing on that little myth that most public safety officials had always known but hardly ever did anything about it. It was like the two ton pink elephant in the room that no one wanted to acknowledge - the inability to communicate between different disciplines across jurisdictional boundaries and different levels of government can be a matter of life and death.
NIJ's AGILE Program was developed to improve the ability of State and local law enforcement agencies to communicate with one another across agency and jurisdictional boundaries. The primary goal of the AGILE Program was to improve interoperability among federal, state, regional, and local public safety agencies.
But AGILE never really gained the momentum to convince the public safety community that this was the right thing to do. We all knew it was but the reality is that it required massive change, not only to our culture, but in policy and procedure; hardware and training. And up until that point a great deal of the resistance came from the idea that the Federal government was simply trying to intervene in a state and local issue without any funding. I was a proud member of the AGILE Program up until it became CommTech.
DHS and SAFECOM
In November 2002, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was established and with it came over 150,000 employees and a budget exceeding $36 billion, the Federal government’s version of “we’re with the government and we’re here to help”. After several government programs made limited strides in addressing this issue, only to learn that their hard work had been disregarded; fragmented; and often conflicting, one of the programs that DHS launched shortly after it was established was SAFECOM.
In an effort to coordinate the various federal initiatives, the SAFECOM program was established by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and began to gain traction as a communications program that started conducting research, engaging in development, testing and evaluation of communications hardware. But most importantly, it began to provide funding in the form of grants, and this, coupled with their “bottoms up” approach, immediately got the attention of the public safety communications community. “Bottoms up” meaning that input from local first responders was paramount to this program, something that local and state government had not been accustomed to when dealing with the Federal government.
In addition, SAFECOM’s guidance, tools, and templates on communications-related issues to local, tribal, state, and Federal emergency response agencies while working to improve emergency response through more effective and efficient interoperable wireless communications started to give this program some real credibility with the public safety community.
By 2004, DHS and the SAFECOM Program were rolling with momentum, more than any other program had ever been able to achieve with public safety communications officials. One of their early goals was to establish a requirement that the 75 metropolitan regions scattered across the country would produce a tactical interoperable communications plan (TICP) intended to document:
• The voice interoperable communications resources that are available in a region
• A quick reference guide that would tell an incident commander the most efficient and effective route between two or more disparate radio systems
• Who controls each resource
• The rules of engagement or operational procedures that exist for the activation and deactivation of each resource
This plan provides the local, state, and Federal public safety agencies serving in these regions with a reference document and guide to use when interoperable communications are required to support emergency operations. These tactical plans strive to provide incident command and control staff with options available to improve, or in some cases, to achieve interoperable communications with other agencies using disparate Land/Mobile Radio (LMR) equipment or systems. In addition, the plans include:
• Critical agency contact information
• Examples of memorandums of understanding (MOUs) and standard operating procedures (SOPs) as starting points for the appropriate stakeholders.
Prior to this formal implementation, each agency in a region had their own operating procedures (if they had any at all), there was hardly any collaboration or exercises between municipalities and only the communications gurus knew anything about communications issues or who their counterparts were in other jurisdictions. If that person was out of town during a major crisis, most likely that agency would not achieve seamless interoperable communications. Before TICP, most regions dealt with interoperable communications scenarios as they occurred, with no regional guidance in place and most contact information for communication points of contact were kept in “noggins” or personal cell phones.
In 2005, I was named the National Capital Region’s (NCR) TICP Point of Contact, which meant that I coordinated the efforts of an awesome team that put together the 278 page document we proudly call the NCR TICP today. Any of the regions who worked on their TICP will tell you that it was no easy feat. It required solid public safety communications governance in place, which allowed for development, maintenance and implementation of this plan. This team was made up of members from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government’s Joint Police and Fire Communications Committee. I found that the governance structure in place allowed us to discuss and review each other’s policies, ultimately allowing us to merge many good ideas and complete this plan on time.
Again, from the tragic lessons learned from the 1982 tragedy of the Air Florida jetliner that crashed into the Potomac River at the Washington, DC and Arlington, VA border, public safety officials in the NCR dedicated significant efforts to ensure that, should another major emergency impact the region ever again, they would be prepared to respond effectively and efficiently.
In some cases, the interoperability may be seamless, and in others, it may require assistance from dispatchers or a communications unit that is on scene, such as a communications leader (COML) or a radio cache team, in order to accomplish effective interagency radio communications. TICP’s specifically identify options available not just to first responders, but to secondary responders as well. The goal is to provide command and control personnel with the most appropriate level of voice interoperable communications capabilities required for each segment of operations during an emergency. It is likely that different resources will be required for different time segments of the incident, as first responders transition their emergency operations to the work of the secondary responders. These plans are that robust and would go on to become the backbone of the validation exercises.
So how do you know how effective a plan is, any plan, unless you test it and exercise your policy and procedure occasionally. People come and go and equipment changes all the time. Exercising plans is something that is not done routinely in most regions, not hardly enough anyway. The primary reason is that these regional exercises and testing take lots of time and money. Time to develop lesson plans and/or scenarios and lots of money to bring in real live practitioners in order to practice with real personnel using live equipment. You see, most of us who share this communications and interoperability responsibility wear multiple “hats” at work. Our full time job is ensuring that our own agency has the most robust radio and interoperability systems in place. But as ancillary duties, we attend these regional governance meetings and participate in the development of regional policy and training. Often times when an exercise is conducted, all of the personnel participating in the exercise: firefighters, police officers, medics, dispatchers and radio system managers, have to be backfilled with personnel brought in to cover the vacancies created by these trainees.
Once the regional plans were completed, DHS launched a deadline of September 2006 for the testing of each of these plans in order to validate them through a full scale communications exercise. Again, DHS did not spare any expenses that were necessary for the successful testing and exercising of these plans. Subject matter experts were retained and deployed throughout the United States in massive teams to test and validate each plan through a vigorous one day exercise. The exercise usually consisted of a scenario that would involve as many of the public safety first responders as possible, engaging each of these first responders (role players) to “think outside of the box” and communicate with someone from another discipline, from another state while using disparate radios. The scenario was graded on governance, policies and procedures; and usage of the hardware and systems in place.
Overall, the National Capital Region did very well, scoring in the top seven of the 75 regions that were tested. We were in great company at the top with regions like San Diego, Columbus, OH; Sioux Falls, SD; Twin Cities, MN; and Laramie, WY, who worked very hard to achieve this tremendous level of interoperability.
So while it is fair to say that the secret is out, it is just as fair to say that with the financial commitment of many governments, the collaboration between state and local public safety agencies across the nation, public safety is much better prepared today to handle large scale emergencies requiring mutual aid. So what do we do now that the plans are written and exercised?
As a start, I believe we should not relax pressure on our politicians and constantly continue to seek financial assistance. Now that the public has this high expectation for us to talk among each other seamlessly (and they should) we should expect to receive the fiscal consideration that it takes to plan, implement and train with these complex communications systems.
Next, I believe we need to continue focusing on standards, standards, standards (you get the picture). The quicker we move from these disparate radio systems and move onto standards based radio systems, coupled with standard operating procedures nationwide, the more prepared we will be for the next big event.
Standards like achieving one common radio language nationwide with very few radio codes for personnel safety scenarios. For more on this see May 2006 column.
And finally, the standard nomenclature of our national interoperability frequencies/channels: National Public Safety Planning Advisory Committee (NPSPAC). The FCC allocated these five conventional radio channels for the purpose of regional and national mutual aid only. These channels were part of the 821/866 MHz spectrum allocation released in the late 1980's and are commonly called the NPSPAC mutual aid channels. And so while the good news is that these five common channels are allocated nationwide and exist in most 800 MHz radio systems regardless of the radio manufacturer, they have different names all across the country.
As an example, a first responder from the east coast, whose radio is programmed with the NPSPAC frequencies may know them as the “ITAC” frequencies. If that same first responder travels to another region of the state or the country, the same frequencies may be called “NTAC” there. This level of standardization is something that is long overdue and has been sanctioned by veteran communications officials across the United States for many years. The good news here is that there are formal efforts underway to finally make this a reality.
So as you can see, just because our plans are in place and the exercises have taken place, there is still lots of work to be done before we can say “mission accomplished”.