Article Archive
Interoperability In A Flash
Lack Of Emergency Communications Is A Real Issue Throughout The U.S.
Vol 20 No 4

What follows is a fictional account of an all too real possibility.

It's late in the summer. A line of thunderstorms has ripped through your part of the country over the past few days and tonight's storms are by and far the worst of the lot. You're the plant fire chief at a large refining complex in the area and at 0301 your phone rings. You notice the time as well as the heavy thunder and lightning as you reach for the phone. It's the third shift manager at the plant. Lightning has struck and two of your largest tanks are on fire. He needs you now. As you head out to the plant you can see the fires in the distance between flashes of lighting. You can tell this is a large fire and you know you will need help from both industrial mutual aid as well as the municipal fire department. You reach for your cell phone to alert both the mutual aid group and the local emergency response center. You are likely to need their help in a big way, but, unbeknown to you, the same set of storms that set off this fire has taken out two of the main cell phone tower sites for the area. Since emergency services are making heavy use of the cell phone system due to the storm, the service is at best random and sporadic. You need to call the local fire department on their radio but you don't have that capability.

In the municipal public safety world this type of problem and scenario is common. Lack of communications interoperability is a real issue in nearly every community in the United States.

So what is interoperability?

In many ways the term interoperability has become so overused many people including public safety officials are really not sure what it truly means. In reality the term is multifaceted and very complex in nature.

The definition of interoperability in the context of the above scenario is related directly to the issues of communications or rather the lack of the ability of this plant fire chief to communicate with his mutual aid forces, both industry based as well as municipal. His in-plant communications system may in fact be 100 percent operational and has all the inter-plant operational features that he needs to run the plant in this time of crisis. Yet, to all extents and purposes, he is sitting alone on an island where he has no direct communications ties to the mutual aid forces that will be so important in the response to this situation.


In the case of government sector public safety provider the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has mandated that all states and eventually all local governments be a part of an interoperable communications system for response to large scale emergencies. Much of this activity can be traced to the terrorist events of September 11, 2001, but the issues of communications interoperability are far from new in emergency response circles. In fact if one was to read just about any major After Action Report regarding any significant emergency response one would almost always find some type of communications related disruption or other problem that occurred. This is almost a universal truth in emergency response.

In the public sector many short to mid range solutions are being explored and other longer term technology based solutions are in the works. In the meantime, what can a plant fire chief or manager do today to help to eliminate or decrease this problem in his plant today?

The very first step ironically is to open the communications lines with the response agencies that you will likely need to work with in an emergency. Do you have an updated phone and frequency list for all of them? Do you know who the key players are and how they can be reached on a 24-hour basis? Can you legally buy radios that will work on their frequencies? If not, are there plausible ways to work around issues such as the use of mutual aid frequencies? Can you supply them with radios that will work on your in-plant communications system?

The next step may require an investment. Many communities are purchasing or upgrading mobile command posts. These multi-use vehicles are designed to support on scene operations at incidents and are specifically designed to allow responders to alleviate the issues posed by multiple radio systems and other issues such as multiple band usage. It may well be very easy to integrate your in-plant communications system with this type of vehicle by supplying the host agency with frequency information. Or in some cases you may be able to supply the host agency with a portable radio which can then be tied into the system on the command post vehicle that will allow your in-plant and the public safety responder's communications systems to operate in tandem.

In one case a company called Icom America makes a system that can be designed for communications center or mobile field command post as described above. The system makes use of switches and software that allow for formerly incompatible analog and digital land mobile radio (LMR) systems as well as other forms of telecommunications equipment such as telephones, cell phones and various other commonly used communications tools to integrate seamlessly with each other. The system can make use of fixed or portable repeaters, voting receivers (receivers installed at multiple tower sites from which the best signal is automatically selected) and interconnect switches that allow a multitude of agencies to create "on the fly" communications networks so that they may freely communicate during an emergency. These systems have been used extensively in public safety radio communications systems and may have a place in the world of in-plant emergency communication depending on the needs of the plant and the local response community.

Since many governmental jurisdictions and plants alike are operating on trunked 800 MHz radio systems, it may be possible if your plant has such a system somehow compatible with the municipal system to add a set of frequencies known as NEXPACT to your plant system. NEXPACT is available to any agency that is a part of a mutual aid system for response to emergencies. If you are using an 800 MHz trunked radio system you should explore this in those "before the emergency occurs" planning meetings that are so important to any mutual aid emergency response.

Deciding how to communicate with your mutual agencies is usually not an easy decision nor is it an easy thing to fix. The beginning of the process is the communication of your needs as well as understanding of the needs and desires of those response agencies that you need to work with during emergencies. The time to begin planning is not when the phone rings at 0301 as it was in our fictional scenario but rather on a nice calm clear day over a cup of coffee in your conference room with your response partners. If you iron out some of these issues in that meeting, your 0301 meeting will likely go much smoother in the long run. o

Louis N. Molino, Sr. is a 24-year veteran emergency services provider. He has been published in a number of national fire and EMS magazines and has also been a Chapter Contributor for a number of major fire and EMS texts and is currently writing a textbook on Incident Management Systems for John Wiley and Son's. He is currently a fire and EMS consultant and instructor based in College Station, TX, and can be reached at .


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F: (979) 690-7562

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