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Inoperable Interoperability

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I recently met with a group of boathouse owners at our local marina that recently suffered a fire killing two boat owners, destroying the large boathouse and 12 large pleasure boats.  In prepping for my presentation I came across one of my fireground observations notes that struck a chord.  In the heat of the battle, I had a Coast Guard liaison on my right hip, offering any assistance necessary.  They had crews on the water, and wanted to know what they could do to assist. A few minutes earlier the battalion chief responsible for the tactical firefight had asked for someone to get eyes on the water side of the fire, which was inaccessible and upwind, and relay fire conditions and other potential hazards.  I asked the Coasty, who immediately asked if we had access to Marine Channel 22.  “Of course we do” I replied, and I radioed the BC to have him switch to the appropriate channel where he could communicate directly with the nearby Coast Guard flotilla.  “Negative” replied the battalion chief.  “I don’t have it available”, he replied.

I turned to the liaison, deciding to do this the old fashioned way….. Face to face. It worked like a charm, with the Coasty talking through his normal channels – radio and cell phone, and me through mine.  We got the job done, quickly, effectively, and CHEAPLY! It didn’t take a multimillion dollar grant and a bazillion training hours and certifications to do it.   No fancy P25 compliant radios, no secret squirrel radio channels, no relay through various hilltop repeaters or  Chuck Norris terminology.  It was simply two guys doing their job, professionally coordinating to make the problem go away.  After the fire, the BC determined his portable radio had the frequency programmed. But, with 50 channels to scroll through in harsh conditions with limited visibility, he bailed out.

Why am I bringing this up?  I just read an excellent article in the latest Urgent Communications magazine predicting the challenges public safety agencies will face in building out the next generation of public safety communication channels and infrastructure.  The article really resonated.  Why? Because I continue to hear about millions being wasted on new technologies (“silver bullets”) touted as solutions to all communication issues faced by public safety agencies today.   The Feds have been investing in proprietary wireless communication technologies with the mistaken belief they will improve “boots on the ground communications”.

We buy complicated and expensive radios with the expectation they can reach out and touch anyone with a pulse.  Yet, these systems are deployed with fundamental flaws that impact public safety. Compounding my frustration is my longing gaze at the ever evolving plethora of readily available and cheap commercial communication platforms and applications that would work just fine for 99.9% of what we do.

Institutional resistance in adopting commercial communication solutions needs to disappear.  But wait… Oh, I forgot, we are special….  We need to have the same secret squirrel communications systems that the Pentagon, CIA and Special Forces groups use, right?  Wrong.

Osama bin Laden reportedly avoided detection for years because he relied on couriers to hand deliver USB sticks to his associates.  This epitome of old school secure communication channels helped him avoid capture for a decade, and still effectively orchestrate bad deeds, although eventually, this absence of technology helped reveal his location.

So, what does a dead terrorist have to do with interoperability?   Sometimes “old school” technology is the most effective way to communicate.

Comments - Add Yours

  • http://wichitafirstaidtraining.com CPR in Kansas

    It makes me crazy that so many firefighters, paramedics and emergency managers I know think that “interoperability” means some equipment from Motorola or an ACU-1000. Interoperability is the communication techniques you keep in your mind. The Motorola of the JPS or face-to-face are only the tools that you use to achieve it.

    There is a reason that Phoenix FD still uses an old 12 channel VHF radio system…it just works. Everyone in the valley has pre-planned and agreed how they will communicate in a crisis. There is no fumbling through the radio dial to find the ITAC or I-Call channels, no patch to be set up by dispatch, no swapping radios at the scene for crews to stay in contact. They operate thousands of calls a month on 12 channels and make it work beautifully because of thoughtful pre-planning.

    Now that the FEMA grant money is drying up, maybe local EMs and fire/EMS leadership will realize that interoperability is not the name of the latest gizmo but a technique.

About chiefb2

Retired fire chief,Type 3 AHIMT IC, PIO. Current industrial services safety professional, social media emergency management disciple (no, I'm not a "guru"). Crisis communications consultant. Dad with an open wallet.