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Demonstrating Interoperability: Developing a Mobile Communications Rally

By James Grant, Fairfax County (VA) Radio Center
Originally published in the August, 2008 issue of 9-1-1 Magazine

Communications interoperability as defined in the National Capital Regional (NCR) Tactical Interoperable Communications Plan (TICP) document 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. SAFECOM has designated four basic types of equipment that can be utilized to achieve communications interoperability. These are:

• Swap / Cache Radios
• Gateways
• Shared Channels
• Shared Systems

Command Rigs of all shapes and sizes were on display. This unit belongs to the Joint Force Headquarters, National Capital Region, an agency established after 9/11 for land-based homeland defense, defense support to civil authorities and incident management in the national capital region. (Photo: 9-1-1 Magazine)
Command Rigs of all shapes and sizes were on display. This unit belongs to the Joint Force Headquarters, National Capital Region, an agency established after 9/11 for land-based homeland defense, defense support to civil authorities and incident management in the national capital region. (Photo: 9-1-1 Magazine)

Within the NCR region, all of these methods are currently available and utilized by agencies within this region.

A form of creating interoperability is by utilizing mobile command and communications vehicles to provide interoperability at a localized event. This is what we accomplished at the 4th Annual Command, Control, and Communications Rally which was held May 27-29, 2008 at the National Air & Space Museum in Fairfax County, Virginia. We had over 70 vehicles at this year’s event, using just about every part of the radio spectrum from low band VHF, to satellite communications. We had Site on Wheels (SOW) and Cellular on Wheels (COW) that were setup as static demonstrations. We had large command vehicles that had basic communication technology, but could be tied into other communication vehicles. We also had small vehicles that provided basic interoperability capabilities without command office space.

The rally is the brainchild of James Wadsworth, the radio services manager for Fairfax County, Virginia. Jim’s vision for this event encompasses the following:

• Multiple agencies working together to solve one problem – communications interoperability

• Communications resources are varied and offer significant challenges to untrained public safety first responders so we need to practice using these resources so that we become familiar with them

• Communications equipment is difficult to set up so we need to practice using them in an interoperable situation

• Incident managers aren’t familiar with what is available to improve interoperability so we need to expose them to the communications equipment at their disposal

For public safety first responders, the rally goals were to:

• Understand how communications tools work – accomplished this through formal classroom training

• Improve interoperable communications through demonstrations and practice exercises

• Build communications expertise through networking with other first responders

For the incident commanders, patrol supervisors, emergency managers:

• Be able to see firsthand what communications resources are available in the area

• Learn how to deploy communications using National Incident Management tools (NIMS)

• Obtain a better understanding of Incident Management for large scale operations utilizing COMLs and the Incident Management Team

For the support personnel in addition to the above items, their goals were to learn what technologies and equipment are being deployed and increase their knowledge of this equipment.
If you are considering hosting a communications vehicle rally, go out and find out who has what capabilities in your region. You may find that your communication centers have a lot of capabilities at either the console level (console patching) or a gateway that has been installed in a fixed location. Knowing the coverage that is available on each of the radios is very important in a fixed site location configuration. Testing these configurations on a regular basis so that personnel can learn how to effectively set up patches or use the gateway is important.

After you have put together a list of resources in your area, invite everyone to come together so that you can come up with a plan of action. Number one rule should be that you are only going to test/work with equipment that you already have. This is not a time for vendors to come in to sell you more products. You want to learn what you have before you go out and purchase more equipment. A critical point to consider is what objectives do you want to accomplish? Start with getting a listing of resources in the area, what radios and other equipment is in each of the resources. Is there a listing of what each radio is programmed with? Are all of the channels named the same for the frequencies or talk groups? Are you following the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (npstc.org) channel naming and programming guidelines for the interoperability channels? A new guideline was recently published with shorter names for radios that cannot accommodate long names.

Put a timeline together for your day:

• Vehicles arrive at 9 AM and/or communication personnel are available

• Assign an individual to oversee the development of a communications plan (ICS-205) working with each vehicle or communication center to make sure that no one is turning on a gateway or repeater that will cause conflicts

• Time for first test of communication plan

• Come back as a group and review what you were or were not able to accomplish, discuss possible solutions to issue, and retest prior to senior staff arrival

• Senior staff arrive and observe the communication test

• Demonstrate other interoperability capabilities – do you have WebEOC or other EOC management tools utilized in your region? How about the capability of getting video from the helicopter or traffic cameras?

Who else should attend? You may want to invite the equipment representative from the vendors that you already have equipment with. Many vendors are willing to teach you how to utilize the equipment on the days prior to the event. They may then want to stay around for your event and help troubleshoot problems that may arise.

After you have held your event bring your group back together and review what you have and have not accomplished. Start planning for your next event.

And have fun!

James Grant is the Interoperability Radio Manager for Fairfax County, VA.

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