IAFF: Voice Radio Communications Guide for the Fire Service, Section 7 - Interoperability

Editor's note: The IAFF and the USFA released an updated version of its Voice Radio Communications Guide for the Fire Service in Oct. 2008. The guide focuses on seven sections of communications – basic radio communication technology, radios and radio systems, portable radio selection and use, trunked radio systems, system design and implementation, interoperability, and radio spectrum licensing and the federal communications commission.

This definition of interoperability is taken from the DHS SAFECOM project:

In general, interoperability refers to the ability of emergency responders to work seamlessly with other systems or products without any special effort. Wireless communications interoperability specifically refers to the ability of emergency response officials to share information via voice and data signals on demand, in real time, when needed, and as authorized.
Most interoperability efforts are driven by the need to meet day-to-day operational requirements. In many large urban areas, the responsible fire department may not require day-to-day interoperability, while some departments interoperate on a daily basis. Since September 11, 2001, there has been significant attention toward efforts to expand interoperability past the day-to-day needs of a public safety agency to address extraordinary events and incidents. Interoperability is required and necessary in today’s world. Where and how it happens is based on a logical analysis of operational practices and requirements.

Many fire departments have interoperability with other fire departments. Interoperability between agencies in the same discipline is intradiscipline interoperability. Interdiscipline interoperability is between different disciplines. Intradiscipline interoperability is the easiest to achieve, since there is a common language, terminology, and tactical objectives. Interdiscipline interoperability may not share common terminology or have the same tactical objectives. These factors should be considered in determining where interoperability occurs in the Command structure. A prime example is when law enforcement responds to a house fire for traffic control. Each discipline has very different tactical objectives. As the fire responders fight the fire using the “common language” of the fire service, this terminology may not be understood by the law enforcement component. In addition understanding when to talk and when not to talk becomes a safety issue. In these situations interoperability may be face-to-face coordination with the Command element, or coordination at the dispatch center level. In the example below both disciplines respond to a motor vehicle crash — fire/EMS for medical care and law enforcement for traffic investigation and traffic control.

The respective dispatch centers send the appropriate response for each discipline on separate radio channels and maybe even on different systems. Each responds, and when onscene they coordinate at the task level face-to-face. If a shared dispatch center and radio system were used, both units could be assigned on a common channel. SAFECOM would consider this a high level of interoperability.

Large Incidents
As incidents grow, interoperability should be planned for in the Command structure. When developing interoperable Command structures, many interoperability tools may be employed. Technical staff plays a pivotal role in providing these technology tools to meet the operational requirements. The technical staff must be familiar with the operational objectives and Command structure to supply the appropriate technological tools. NFPA 1221 (7.4.10) recommends the use of a Communications Officer at all major incidents, and a Communications Unit Leader is part of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) Command structure. The technical staff should receive the appropriate training to fulfill these roles successfully. Communications Unit Leaders in the NIMS Command structure provide a central point of contact to develop a communications plan to meet the interoperability needs on a large incident. The example below is a large Command structure where multiple technologies are employed to achieve the appropriate level of interoperability for the incident. When interoperating, determining the number of channels needed to support the incident must be a consideration. It is always important to account for the amount of radio traffic on a channel and to reserve some air time for unforeseen needs such as a Mayday. Complex operations that are communications intensive should have their own channel to ensure that there is adequate on-air time and reserve capacity for unforeseen events. Shared or patched channels can be used when there are common

tactical objectives. Before patching channels or using gateways that essentially tie channels together, the amount on each of the channels must be a considered. If both of the channels are near saturation the patch or gateway will make communications nearly impossible. Below is an example of a large-scale multidiscipline Command structure where multiple technologies are used to achieve interoperability.

Many technologies are available to achieve interoperability, and often the simplest solutions are overlooked in favor of complex technological solutions. The simple solutions usually are the quickest to implement and easiest to understand. In some instances, face-to-face communications may provide the desired level of interoperability, while in other cases other methods may be necessary. In the example a joint Command structure in a common location allowed the use of face-to-face communications for coordination. When a common Command location is not employed, a strategic-level Command channel is an option.

Many technologies are used to achieve interoperability, and many other factors have an impact on interoperability. SAFECOM is a program within DHS that is tasked with achieving communications interoperability for local, tribal, State, and Federal emergency response agencies. SAFECOM has many documents available that will guide and assist in achieving interoperability. SAFECOM documentation is available at: www.safecomprogram.gov/SAFECOM.

SAFECOM defines interoperability as the ability of emergency responders to work seamlessly with other systems or products without any special effort. Wireless communications interoperability specifically refers to the ability of emergency response officials to share information via voice and data signals on demand, in real time, when needed, and as authorized. Some interoperability is achieved by coordination at the dispatch level. A high level of interoperability would be a shared radio system and dispatch center that could dispatch multi-discipline responses on a single channel. Interoperability can be intradiscipline or interdiscipline:

• Intradiscipline:
- like disciplines;
- common tactical objectives;
- same language and terminology; and
- usually easiest to achieve.

• Interdiscipline:
- different disciplines;
- different tactical objectives; and
- different terminology.

NFPA 1221 and NIMS identify the need for a communications coordination officer on large incidents. Proper training is required for technical staff to understand the operational needs on large incidents. As incidents grow, the Communications Unit Leader in a NIMS Command organization is the central point of contact for communications needs and coordination. Many technologies are available to achieve interoperability. Often the simplest solutions are overlooked in favor of complex technical ones. The simplest solutions, such as face-to-face communications and swapping radios, are easy to understand and the quickest to implement. SAFECOM is a program in DHS tasked with achieving interoperability at all levels and is a valuable resource for information.

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