Emergency Communications: Taking Command
The inability of first responders to communicate during an emergency is a scary proposition. Concern over communication among public safety agencies and municipalities peaked following the Sept. 11 attacks, and it has prompted major changes in emergency mutual aid procedures throughout America’s cities and townships.
“In any catastrophic situation in the last few years, the biggest problem has been the ability of people to talk to each other from one agency or discipline to another — be it the Twin Towers, the Pentagon or Hurricane Katrina,” says deputy chief John Rockwell of the Columbus, Ohio, Police.
Using procedures initially developed by western states in response to fighting forest fires, National Incident Management System/Incident Command Structure (NIMS/ICS) standards have been adopted by law enforcement, fire service and other first responder agencies across the country to facilitate communications interoperability.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has provided more than $2.9 billion in grant assistance to state and local agencies in the last three years for communications interoperability. Recipients of Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grants have been required to put together a Tactical Interoperability Communications Plan (TICP), which demonstrates adherence to the NIMS/ICS standards, leadership, technical and radio interoperability.
Seventy-five urban/metropolitan areas were evaluated on these plans from May through September of 2006, with documentation reviews and tactical field exercises part of the process. DHS announced the results of these evaluations in December — the so-called “Tactical Interoperable Communications (TIC) Scorecard”.
Columbus, Ohio, was one of six areas to receive a score of “advanced implementation” from the DHS on the three key criteria:
“Standard operating procedures” (SOPs), which include policies, practice, procedures, command and control;
“Usage,” the frequency of use and familiarity with interoperability systems; and
“Governance,” including planning, agreements, funding, leadership and committee structures.
The other communities receiving the highest scores were Washington, D.C.; San Diego; Minneapolis-St. Paul; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Laramie County, Wyo. In each case, the “communities” consisted of urban or metropolitan areas, such as a major city and surrounding counties.
Government Security spoke with representatives from three of the high-scoring regions — Washington, D.C., Columbus, Ohio; and San Diego — to determine how they had developed management and technical systems, which, in many cases, DHS officials consider “best practices” or “models” for other areas to follow.
These communities combine aggressive, cooperative fiscal practices (such as grant applications) with a deep commitment to collaboration through Homeland security planning committees. They have made it clear they consider working together on these committees the foundation of any successful mutual aid effort.
Columbus dedicates funds for communications
Columbus formed its Homeland Security Advisory Council in 2002. “Communications was our priority,” Rockwell says. “We have devoted half of the funds from the UASI and other grants to communications and interoperability.”
There are approximately 20 people on the Homeland Security Advisory Council, and they represent some 2 million people in 42 municipalities, Rockwell says, noting that Columbus is Ohio’s largest city. The Council’s members include representatives from the City of Columbus and Franklin County (where Columbus is located), as well as 14 other counties in the region.
“The biggest strength we have in this area is the cooperative relationship among all agencies and governmental subdivisions, of having a Homeland Security Council where we all get together and know each other and get along,” Rockwell says.
All police and fire departments in Columbus and Franklin County have the same Motorola SmartNetII radios, Rockwell says. They operate on two major, 800 MHz trunked analog systems — the City of Columbus system, used by the majority of the public safety agencies in Franklin County; and the Franklin County system, used by many of the public service agencies.
Public safety and service agencies that do not have the Motorola radios can make use of a cache of 100 additional SmartNet phones, which have been purchased for use in emergencies.
“We also use a Raytheon ACU-1000 gateway to allow people with totally different radio systems to communicate,” Rockwell says. In addition, consoles (base station radios) have been placed at strategic public safety locations.
Communications interoperability requires pre-planned agreements among agencies as well as technical compatibility. They must know which talk groups, or channels, they will use in an emergency.
During the Sept.11 attack on the Pentagon, for instance, radio channels were initially saturated, according to the “After-Action Report” issued by the Arlington County Fire Department. And at the World Trade Center, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, “so many different (Fire Department of New York) companies were attempting to use the same point-to-point channel that communications became unintelligible.”
The City of Columbus Division of Police uses different talk groups for each of its five geographical zones, Rockwell says. In an emergency situation, radio coordination both within the agency and between different agencies (such as police and fire) must be established in advance. “You need to establish an agreed-upon protocol as to which talk groups you’d work on in an emergency,” Rockwell says. “You have to make sure groups with different functions are designated to specific talk groups — for instance, hospitals, traffic control, fire and bomb squads. And there has to be a command structure within the agencies to monitor all of this, including an Incident Commander and designated Communications Incident Leader.”
Such communication protocols and command structures are part of the NIMS/ICS standard used by the DHS to evaluate communities for the TIC scorecard.
While urban areas were asked to design exercises that would demonstrate their level of performance in communications interoperability, several of them found themselves in the midst of real-life situations that enabled them to demonstrate their capabilities. In Columbus, officials decided that an annual, region-wide event — the July 4th “Red, White and Boom” celebration — would be the best platform to demonstrate their interoperability capabilities.
“It is a huge event, held in downtown Columbus, with 500,000 to 750,000 people each year,” Rockwell says. “We integrated interoperability into it, involving a large number of federal, state and municipal public safety agencies. We tested radios, caches and gateways. We used a portable antenna to enable agencies to reach the federal frequency, and we demonstrated compliance with the NIMS/ICS standard.”
San Diego builds on its experience with forest fires
Homeland security officials in San Diego, Calif., say they relied on a knowledge base developed over the past 10 years when they began drafting their TIC plan. The DHS scorecard confirms the value of the experience, noting that San Diego’s TICP “was one of the most thorough, well planned TICPs reviewed and can be viewed as a model.”
Jill Olen, deputy chief operating officer for public safety and Homeland security for San Diego, cites strong cooperation among federal, state and local public safety and service agencies to explain the region’s successful TIC Plan. Agencies as diverse as the U.S. Coast Guard, city police and fire departments and federal and state forestry services have demonstrated an “unprecedented level of coordination,” Olen says.
The region’s Unified Disaster Council, comprised of public safety officials from 18 cities as well as San Diego and Imperial Counties, meets monthly and directly coordinates public safety planning. The Council’s Interoperable Communications Committee was assigned the task of developing the TIC plan working closely with the San Diego State University Research Foundation.
A decade-long experience of mutual aid in fighting forest fires put the San Diego region in an excellent position to develop a top TIC plan. While San Diego’s original TICP exercise called for a simulated scenario, a genuine emergency overtook these plans.
“We received an emergency call that a fire had started the afternoon before the exercise was scheduled,” says Sue Levine, regional interoperable communications project manager for the Research Foundation. The fire, called the “Horse Fire,” was raging in San Diego County within the Cleveland National Forest on July 25, and the event was used to demonstrate communications interoperability.
“We visited the dispatch centers to see how they were handling the fire,” Levine says. “The U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry (CDF), local urban area fire agencies and the Sheriff’s department were among the federal, state and local agencies already involved in fighting the fire.”
San Diego officials demonstrated the effectiveness of their NIMS/ICS command structure, their use of two trunked 800 MHz radio systems — the Regional Communications System (RCS) for San Diego and Imperial Counties, and the City of San Diego system — and interoperability with the federal Integrated Wireless Network (IWS).
“We could show, for instance, that a police officer in the city could communicate with a California State Police Officer, that there was a protocol as to how they could communicate. Frequencies were already programmed into their radios and they could come onto a common channel,” says Bob Welty, director of Homeland security for the Research Foundation.
San Diego and Imperial Counties (the RCS system) primarily use Motorola XTL-5000 radios. Raytheon ACU-1000 and ACU-T gateways are used as well and can bring federal agencies into the system. “There are multiple gateways, mobile and fixed — it is a very robust system,” Welty says. Radio caches are also used extensively to provide interoperability to agencies responding to emergencies.
San Diego’s city and county systems are undergoing radio system upgrades, with the city upgrading from Motorola’s SmartNet II to SmartZone 4.1, Levine says. “The new systems will provide more capacity and a new infrastructure,” Levine says. “There will be new radio equipment that will enhance interoperability. The hope is to link the two systems together directly.” Currently, a console provides connectivity from the RCS to the City of San Diego’s system.
Shared systems and frequencies facilitate interoperability in D.C.
Approximately 20 public safety agencies make up the core mutual aid group in the Nation’s Capital Region. Like San Diego and Columbus, these groups have a history of collaboration and commitment to working together on both a routine and emergency basis.
“We encompass 20 jurisdictions, from the larger, such as Fairfax County, Va., and Montgomery County, Md., to smaller counties and cities,” says Steve Dickstein, chief for public safety programs for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG). “We also have associate members including Maryland and Virginia State Police, the FBI’s Washington Field Office, ATF, Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the U.S. Capitol Police. Representatives from these agencies worked on the TIC Plan for the area.” Police and fire communications sub-committees also played a large role.
Like San Diego, public safety agencies in the District of Columbia, suburban northern Virginia and Maryland’s Montgomery County are sharing an 800 MHz Motorola SmartZone system (Version 4). They use hand-held, car and console radios, says Captain Eddie Reyes, Alexandria Area Commander for the Alexandria, Va., Police Department. Reyes chaired the Police Communications Committee of (MWCOG) Interoperability User’s Group from 2003 to 2006.
Public safety personnel from Prince Georges County, Md., operate on an UHF frequency and achieve interoperability with the region’s other agencies through a Raytheon JPS/ACU-1000 gateway.
The Alexandria police have two such gateways, each with a 12-radio capacity. “The gateway device serves as a bridging tool between frequencies and vendors,” Reyes says. “It creates a patch. We have 23 actual radios connected to our gateways to accommodate federal agencies as well as additional municipalities.” During the last Presidential Inauguration, for instance, 36 additional municipalities helped with public safety.
To ensure that surrounding public service agencies can communicate during an emergency, a cache of 1,250 800 MHz Motorola radios, along with rechargeable and disposable batteries, was recently purchased with funds from a grant filled out by 19 agencies. “We also have two SUVs and two trailers that allow us to keep these radios in strategic locations for planned or emergency events,” Reyes says.
While the shared system allows responders to go to a pre-determined channel or talk group during an emergency, the radios have also been pre-programmed for national interoperability frequencies, allowing D.C. area emergency workers to “communicate over these channels anywhere in the country,” says Reyes.
For the TICP exercise, the D.C. sniper attacks of 2002 were revisited. Captain Hassan Aden of the Alexandria Police was instrumental in coordinating the exercise, held last September. The scenario simulated the three weeks in October 2002 when two men held three counties (Fairfax, Va., Prince Georges and Montgomery, Md.) and Washington D.C. hostage, shooting 14 people and killing 10.
During the exercise, police simulated a high-speed vehicle pursuit across the three counties. The U.S. Park Police, Alexandria Police, Fairfax Fire Department and Virginia State Police were among the agencies participating, according to Reyes. “We showed that we can communicate with agencies from different jurisdictions, and also in the same language,” Reyes says. “We did very well because we have stressed using plain English (rather than police codes) when communicating with other agencies during mutual aid.”
The use of plain English, an idea being given consideration by many law enforcement agencies, is one more example of public safety collaboration. And it is that type of cooperation that officials of these successful municipalities stress again and again.
“When our police or fire communications subcommittees meet, it is a fairly large group,” Dickstein says. The goal is to bring communication together for everyone in the first responder community so that if we have an incident, it allows us to know the players, build relationships and work together. There is an excellent trust factor, and this bodes very well for us when we respond in a mutual situation.”