The Interoperability Challenge
Disastrous events such as the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina have shown how important it is to be able to communicate.
As defined by SAFECOM, a Presidential initiative created to achieve interoperability among all elements of the nation’s public safety and first-responder community, communications interoperability is the ability of public safety agencies to talk across disciplines and jurisdictions via radio communications systems, exchanging voice and data on demand, in real time, when authorized. The Metro-Boston Homeland Security Region is at the forefront of efforts at the local, state and federal levels to achieve this goal nationwide.
Boston: An interoperability challenge
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) designated Boston as a “high-threat” urban area in July 2003 as part of its Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant program. The Metro-Boston UASI Region was later named the Metro-Boston Homeland Security Region (MBHSR). It consists of nine jurisdictions: Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Quincy, Revere, Somerville and Winthrop.
As the area’s core city, Boston is responsible for leading and implementing UASI projects. Mayor Thomas M. Menino created the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Preparedness (MOEP) to integrate and manage Homeland security activities for the region. In implementing the region’s overall Homeland security strategy, the MBHSR has been successful in the critically important area of communications interoperability.
In a report published in February 2005, the National Task Force on Interoperability identified five key reasons that public safety agencies cannot communicate. They are incompatible and aging communications equipment; limited and fragmented funding; limited and fragmented planning; a lack of coordination and cooperation; and inadequate and fragmented radio spectrum. Each of these issues presented challenges for the Boston region; however, unlike many other regions, the nine jurisdictions comprising the MBHSR had a sound baseline of equipment and personnel. At least as important, members of the MBHSR have a history of cooperation within agencies and within disciplines that cross jurisdiction boundaries.
A solid foundation
The Boston region has a successful history of communications interoperability using three discipline-specific shared systems — CMED (Centralized Emergency Medical Dispatch), BAPERN (Boston Area Police Emergency Radio Network), and MetroFire. “Shared systems” refers to the use of a single radio system infrastructure to provide service to most public safety agencies or disciplines within a region. The MBHSR agencies support the three discipline-specific shared systems that, in some cases, include agencies from outside the MBHSR. These shared systems formed a foundation for regional interoperability. What the region lacked was communications capabilities across disciplines.
Keys to interoperability
The Boston region has focused its efforts on improving interoperability both in day-to-day situations, such as traffic accidents, and under critical incident conditions, such as a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.
Include the human factor: While the use of functional equipment is essential to achieving interoperability, it is the “human factor” that ensures that the equipment is right for the region and that first responders are willing and able to use it properly. The Boston region focused on this human dimension of the challenge, and actively involved first responders from the beginning.
Create a regional governance structure: Governance is one of the success factors essential to interoperable systems highlighted in SAFECOM’s Interoperability Continuum, which is recognized as an organizing principle for achieving communications interoperability. Like many urban areas, joint communications planning across agencies and jurisdictions was not always common in the Metro-Boston area. It is much easier to budget, plan, procure and implement within one agency than it is across multiple agencies; however, the MBHSR understood that incidents that jeopardize public health and safety respect neither agency nor jurisdiction boundaries. The challenge was to create a governance structure that would allow multiple jurisdictions and agencies to overcome historical and political silos while building a lasting organization through which regional decisions could be made and implemented.
The common governance structure included the creation of the Communications Interoperability Subcommittee (CIS), a charter to run the subcommittee, and a process that enables coordination between the CIS and other decision-making bodies in the MBHSR. The CIS Charter has been designated a National Best Practice by SAFECOM, and was used to create a DHS “tool” for other practitioners to use. This tool will soon be available on SAFECOM’s Web site at www.safecomprogram.gov.
Conduct a baseline study: Once the governance structure was established, the MBHSR needed a better understanding of the current state of communications operability and interoperability for the region. To do this, the MBHSR performed a technical and operational study to establish a regional baseline. (See the assessment instrument developed by the region’s police, fire, and EMS responders: http://tinyurl.com/ngdt8)
Develop a five-year strategic plan: The strategic initiatives identified through the study were organized into a five-year Strategic Plan to address quick-hits to yield immediate results and longer-term, complex initiatives needing further research and regional consensus. The goals of the plan were: establishing standards; improving performance, capacity and redundancy in existing communication systems; creating new communications interoperability capabilities across the MBHSR; improving wireless data capabilities; implementing a communications exercise program; and coordinating with other activities having implications for communications interoperability.
The strategic planning approach was practitioner-driven, ensured consensus, focused on regional thinking and addressed all elements of SAFECOM’s Interoperability Continuum — Governance, Standard Operating Procedures, Technology, Training and Exercises and Usage. (See the Five-Year Strategic Plan Developed by the region’s police, fire, and EMS responders:http://tinyurl.com/s88cy)
Implement the five-year plan: The proof of any strategic plan is its execution. Implementation of the MBHSR’s Strategic Plan is driven by the expected outcomes — increased radio and data interoperability resulting in improved capability to prevent, protect, prepare for, respond to and recover from emergency incidents.
To leverage the momentum of the CIS and put the plan into action, the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Preparedness (MOEP) and CIS began implementing the strategic plan in August 2005. Since then, a number of critical plan components have been successfully addressed.
The Regional Channel Plan
The most significant component is the creation of a Standard Regional Channel Plan, giving first responders access to new additional communications capabilities, which substantially increase interoperability across the MBHSR. The Channel Plan provides disciplines with the same set of channels that are programmed into the majority of first responder radios now on the street, thus improving cross-discipline interoperability. In addition to having more communications capabilities across disciplines, first responders now have greater flexibility in direct communications capabilities (officer-to-officer) as opposed to going through dispatch centers. This slate of capabilities offers flexibility for incident commanders, especially during large-scale events involving multiple disciplines and jurisdictions.
To solidify the Regional Channel Plan, the CIS developed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to institutionalize the necessary agreements among jurisdictions. Regional training was conducted to ensure that police, fire and emergency medical services personnel across the Boston region understood the Channel Plan capabilities and guidelines for use. Radios were programmed with the Standard Regional Channel Plan, as well as the necessary local agency channels, to allow first responders access to the same set of channels in an emergency.
With the increased communication capabilities, the channel plan offers more options for sustainability and backup during an emergency event. For example, if a MetroFire transmitter was destroyed in Boston and the Fire Service had no way to communicate, they could roll over to a BAPERN (Law Enforcement) channel.
Spending, standards, training
Through the governance structure, procurement thresholds were developed to ensure that Homeland security funding was being spent to address the most pressing regional needs. Standards were created to ensure that all newly procured radio equipment would be operable and interoperable. For example, based on the approved minimum equipment standards, all newly procured radios are required to have a channel capacity of 255 or greater so that users are able to program their own discipline channels as well as additional channels for interoperability.
Finally, the functions of radio buttons and switches were standardized on radios to ensure consistency across the region. As a result, should the need arise, a Quincy fire responder could use a Boston police radio and the basic functions would be the same. Once the standards were developed for the use of new capabilities, training was implemented to ensure that first responders could apply the standards.
Following the most recent phase of equipment procurement, the region has replaced 2,486 portable and 706 mobile first responder radios that did not meet minimum standards (74 percent). With the deployment of these radios, which includes programming to the Standard Regional Channel Plan and training, 82 percent of MBHSR radios became able to access the same regional channels.
The Boston region collectively developed a Regional Communications Data Warehouse to share information about communications equipment and interoperability capabilities. This regional planning and budgeting tool is available for real-time decision-making during an event.
Like all UASI jurisdictions, the MBHSR recently finalized its Tactical Interoperable Communications Plan (TICP). The TICP outlines the available interoperable communications resources present in the urban area, the agency that controls each resource, and the rules of use or operational procedures for the activation and deactivation of each resource. The TICP goes a long way in making transparent the channels of communication, thus fostering coordination and collaboration.
Lessons learned; future goals
One of the most critical success factors for the Boston region was the empowerment of a formalized governance structure to enable multiple jurisdictions and disciplines to come together in a new way.
While there is value to analyzing information in advance of rolling out a strategic plan, it is equally important to trust instincts, make decisions and take action. Rather than falling into “analysis paralysis,” the MBHSR focused on thinking for the long-term and acting in the short-term. This strategy created opportunities not only for fast successes but also for learning early on from mistakes, correcting them and continuing to forge ahead.
To continue the success the MBHSR has achieved, it is essential to continue to look ahead. The biggest outstanding need is continued coordination and collaboration at local, state and federal levels.
Finally, inadequate and fragmented radio spectrum available to public safety makes it difficult for agencies and jurisdictions to communicate. As technology advances and improves, more and more electronic devices, both public and private, require radio spectrum in order to operate. As a result, spectrum is becoming scarcer and more valuable, thus it must be re-allocated and better managed.
About the Authors
David Bibo is assistant director of the Boston Mayor’s Office of Emergency Preparedness and the Metro-Boston Homeland Security Region. He may be reached at [email protected]
Leslie Thornton is a principal consultant with SRA Touchstone Consulting Group. She may be reached at [email protected].