THREE IMPORTANT INGREDIENTS FOR INTEROPERABLE COMMUNICATIONS
REPETITION: 1 key factor.
When responding to an incident or disaster (natural or man-made), most first responders act out of instinct, based on their past training and experience. Education authorities tell us that effective learning requires constant exposure to a topic; not just a one off course or flicking through a user manual.
Education is a matter of adopting a new idea, process or activity. These new processes must become natural or second nature to the student. This is especially true when an individual finds themselves in a situation where they are under extreme pressure. If you do not become fully engaged in these new ways or ideas, one could go back to more accustomed practices.
All personal involved in an incident, whether they are on the frontline, in a command centre or senior managers in HQ, must be prepared at a moment’s notice to respond in the appropriate manner. Time is always paramount. Although the plan may seem important preparation is critical to implementing the appropriate response.
“The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining”.
[State of the Union Address January 11 1962]
COLLABORATION: 2nd key factor
Collaboration should be one of the most fundamental element in responding to emergency situations. Until recently voice communications via radio or telephone was the norm. Now security personnel and first responders at all levels and functions have available multimedia communication capabilities at their disposal – telephone, smartphone, land mobile radio voice, live camera video, images, text and data files.
Unfortunately, with these multimedia technologies has come a certain amount of incompatibility. Different public safety agencies and security bodies have vastly different communications capabilities, resulting in the problematic sharing of data which impedes the creation of relevant, useful real-time information.
It is now possible to share data among different groups, agencies and entities and is referred to as multimedia communications interoperability.
Three Key Ingredients for Success
Many solutions have been developed and deployed to address the interoperability issue among public safety agencies and or private agencies. Unfortunately, most of them have focused on patented core technologies. These solutions also seem to focus on the “softer” issues that can render these systems ineffective and do not deliver true interoperability.
Independent of the technological approach, a solution must address three key issues:
Any system must be very easy to use and intuitive. During an incident or disaster response, there is no time to reach for an instruction manual or attempt to recall what an instructor said during a training exercise. The human-machine interface must be obvious. With staff turnover, shift operations and, hopefully, the scarcity of events, complexity will hinder the actions of the participants.
When that 000 call comes in or that alarm sounds, no one knows what to expect. Incidents are always different. The differences may be subtle or dramatic. The available resources and the required resources may be different. As the event evolves and time passes, new responses requiring different resources or strategies may emerge. Although we can plan and attempt to foresee scenarios, the process, not the actual plan, is the critical ingredient to effectiveness. The unforeseen will be the rule, not the exception. The tools cannot inhibit real-time adaptability.
In time critical situations, all users must be able to communicate and then collaborate with methods that are second-nature to the end user. Operating communications equipment, systems and protocols that are used every day is the best way to insure this familiarly. Therefore, from the end users perspective, interoperability needs to be established, using their primary communications equipment. Breaking out special or disparate equipment then deploying it is not practical or commercially viable during major incidents or on a daily basis. Even if it were available when and where needed, unfamiliar systems requires time and often causes confusion, which can inhibit responses at the most critical time.
These three important issues are interconnected and must be addressed simultaneously in the design, implementation and use of the any system; most importantly in the training of the personnel likely to be involved in routine and extraordinary operations
An example of a system that meets all of these objectives is in operation today. This system provides a common multimedia communications overlay system that links many different agencies together, allowing each agency or entity to use their existing communications equipment to communicate with each other. The network consists of law enforcement agencies, other first responder groups, transit agency, various agencies’ command vehicles, hospitals, shopping malls, a major sport arena and numerous schools. Expansion of the system is ongoing, with additional facilities representing first responders, critical infrastructure and places of mass gathering being added to the network.
With such a diverse user base, a program was developed to insure that the system and the associated personnel remain ready and able to respond, when needed. The voluntary program involves random roll call tests conducted several times each week. During the roll call process, the roll call administrator contacts an agency and asks them to participate in a training incident. The invitee then brings appropriate voice and video resources into the mock incident and, optionally, contacts other participant agencies who would then add their own communications resources to the incident.
If any questions arise during the exercise, the administrator can provide real-time, hands-on training to address the issue. NIMS and ICS compliant procedures are used in the roll call process and if operational issues arise, appropriate follow-on training is conducted. A typical roll call exercise takes only one or two minutes due to the system’s simple and intuitive user interface.
By varying the types of actions requested during the roll call process, users become accustomed to responding to a wide variety of scenarios. Finally, the process, which occurs two or three times a week, and covers all shifts, insures that both new and experienced users maintain their familiarity with the system.
All participants have enthusiastically embraced the system and the roll call process. The underlying technology provides the means to communicate, but most importantly, the users make the system effective and are ready to respond when the need arises thorough the continuous reinforcement of the system’s operation.
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