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Common language is the key to achieving better interoperability

By Capt. Eddie Reyes
Sponsored by Cisco Systems

Last month I mentioned that one of three basic interoperability solutions that costs nothing or very little in order to achieve better public safety communications and interoperability was to drop most radio codes and adopt a common language.

For the most part, public safety has improved their technical level of communications and can interoperate with other disciplines and/or their neighbors during times of mutual aid. This was mostly accomplished by a sincere commitment from local government leaders, lots of state and federal funding in the form of communications grants and the expectation from the public for us to do better.

But if we’re ever going to embrace a common language for all public safety across the country, we need to get started because even though it can be inexpensive to accomplish, it’s certainly not going to be easy.

What remains to be done in establishing seamless and effective interoperable communications is the unglamorous job of getting everyone on the same “human” communications page. As chair of the Virginia State Interoperability Executive Committee, I have made this my number one priority because I’ve traveled to most parts of the Commonwealth and have seen the awesome communications solutions that are in place, ready for the next large event.

Unfortunately what I still see are proprietary radio codes closely guarded by each agency who will tell you that their protocol is to “switch” to plain English during mutual aid.

This is mostly a law enforcement issue, because almost all Fire and EMS agencies across the country are using a common protocol (plain English). I believe that their distinct advantage is the fact that they practice mutual aid hourly in some regions, unlike the law enforcement community that is more restricted in mutual aid because of complex jurisdictional and legal issues.

Officer safety is also very much at stake with some law enforcement radio transmissions which is not as great a concern for the Fire and EMS community.

At the Tactical Interoperable Communications Conference held in Washington, DC on May 8th, I applauded United States Department of Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff when he said,

    “So I have to say from the very beginning that those who say we’ve made no progress from the lack of interoperability in September 11th are just wrong, because this equipment and this technology is here, and it does reflect a substantial amount of progress.

    “But the second point, which I think people aren’t aware of is that the challenge we have is not a technological challenge. It has to do with, rather, human beings. It has to do with how do we get people to be able to use this equipment in a way that makes interoperability not just a theoretical possibility, or a technological possibility, but an actual, workable, day-to-day solution.

    “And this question of how do we get human beings to be able to use interoperability, to be able to use this technology, is a matter of developing real standard operating procedures, proper governance, agreements in training, all of which will define how this equipment that we now have can actually be used and shared in the real world.”

Here in the National Capital Region (NCR), the Fire and EMS community has made so much progress in this area that not only do they enjoy effective common language and protocol throughout the region (some 19 agencies), but they have taken it as far as synchronizing the numbering of their fire apparatus by jurisdiction so that when they transmit on each other’s radio system, they know exactly what jurisdiction they’re from.

Communications across departments and jurisdictions has long been a headache for local, state and federal first responders. Every disaster—from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to Hurricane Katrina—highlights the need to solve the problem.

Many of the problems have been solved with existing technology. Unfortunately most first responders know very little of their own communications systems, let alone their neighbors or the interoperability protocols that exist in their region.

Communications is the most critical component in any public safety operation, yet it usually receives the least attention in training and standards.

Because the law enforcement community relies on their proprietary radio lingo for day-to-day transmissions, sometimes interoperability is hampered even when the technical gap has been fixed. Expecting law enforcement officers to instantly switch to a common language and protocol once they become interoperable with another agency during a stressful mutual aid event is simply unreasonable.

But change is on the way and some agencies have made a serious commitment to attempt to resolve this issue.

In the NCR for instance, the Montgomery County, Maryland Police Department invoked a plain English protocol in August 2005 (with some limited radio codes for officer safety). Unfortunately, the Maryland State Police, one of their regular interoperable partners, did not and a routine traffic crash on a road with concurrent jurisdiction turned a bit chaotic when a trooper used the Montgomery County radio system to report the crash, but also used the Montgomery County code “10-50”, which means “officer down.” [Hear the radio transmissions] To the Maryland State Police, that means a traffic crash.

What ensued in the next several minutes immediately after his radio transmission were multiple officers from Montgomery County responding with lights and siren to a fender bender that the trooper quickly pushed out of the road.

What makes adopting a regional common language protocol for a state police agency very difficult is the fact that if they were to implement it in one region of the state, it may not work in another if that other region had their own protocol. What makes this issue even much more complex is that now we’ve greatly expanded the borders of our mutual aid. Last year, my agency sent police officers to assist in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.

This is why I believe it is extremely important for the Federal government to take on this issue with lots of local and regional input and make it a national standard and priority. Events like Hurricane Katrina are going to continue and we’re going to continue sending mutual aid across the country. Doesn’t it make sense that we should be able to understand each other once our mobile and portable radios work outside of our jurisdiction?

At the state level, I have led an effort to make public safety communications a standard protocol across disciplines and jurisdictions. My team and I (made up of all disciplines and levels of government) came up with a formal process after agreeing on two things:

1. It had to be simple, and

2. It couldn’t compromise officer safety.

We analyzed lots of scenarios and agreed that almost every radio transmission could be said in plain English except for four:

    • Mayday – officer in immediate danger

    • Send me a back-up officer without bystanders knowing back-up had been requested

    • Take a person into custody

    • Prepare to copy confidential information – usually a “wanted” confirmation

We’re prepared to send this recommendation to the Governor in the 2007 Commonwealth of Virginia Strategic Plan for Statewide Communications Interoperability. With some formal support from the Governor, training funds and dedicated education throughout the Commonwealth, we believe we can begin to turn this tide. Some local agencies have already expressed interest wanting to be the first to do this.

What’s missing now is the commitment from local leaders to do this as well as the funds for training personnel on a common language protocol. Change is not easy in the law enforcement culture, especially when they think it’s an issue that’s not broken. Most law enforcement personnel will tell you that this common language protocol is only necessary during national security events.

Grant funding guidelines have normally not allowed these funds to be used for training personnel. If any agency is seriously considering this change, the first advice I would offer is to embark on a strong communications and interoperability governance in the region.

It’s great if one agency makes this level of commitment, however, it’s not going to be very effective unless all agencies in the region make a similar commitment. And the only way to accomplish this is by promoting it constantly at monthly governance meetings that deal with public safety communications and interoperability issues.

The hardship with achieving this level of interoperability at a regional level is that each agency wants their codes to be the ones used by everyone else. When we undertook this massive effort in the NCR, not only were we battling the huge culture giant, but also the different levels within each agency’s code system.

You see, almost every agency uses 10 codes (“10-4”), signals (“Signal 2”) and codes (“Code 3”). To give an example of how confusing just one agency’s radio protocol can be, consider the following transmission from one officer: “Start me a Signal 2, Code 3 for a combative 10-17.”

What this officer was trying to say was: “Start me a back up, lights and siren for a combative complainant.” As you can see, it does not take any more air space to say the exact same thing in a language that any mutual-aid officer could’ve understood.

Most all grant funding is for the procurement of hardware, deployment and management. In Virginia for example, the Virginia Commonwealth Interoperability Coordinators Office oversees $5.6 million in grants for local programs. Almost all of it was used to purchase hardware or consultant fees. Besides, the federal money may be drying up.

The Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing program had $97 million for interoperability programs for fiscal 2005. This year it is reported that it only has $10 million in total for all types of programs. The president’s proposed budget for 2007 has zero funds allocated specifically for interoperable communications.

In closing--and remembering some encouraging words used by Secretary Chertoff at the Tactical Interoperable Communications Conference, “the model of the perfect is the enemy of the good”--I’d like to think this is something we can get done by deciding we need to do this, putting politics aside and getting it done.

Will embracing this protocol be easy? Absolutely not. Will it be right the first time it’s implemented? Absolutely not. But with years of adjustment and day-to-day training, the days of proprietary radio codes and lack of human interoperability will become a thing of the past.

Sponsored by Cisco Systems

Capt. Reyes, Alexandria (VA) PD, is currently the Arlandria Area Commander in Alexandria. He was formerly assigned to the CommTech Program (formerly the AGILE Program), one of the most successful programs of the National Institute of Justice.

While at NIJ, he managed public safety radio interoperability operations for the City of Alexandria. Captain Reyes commanded the Emergency Communications Section of the Alexandria PD and chaired the Metro Washington Council of Governments Police Technology Subcommittee, which focuses on regional technology issues impacting law enforcement.

He chairs the VA State Interoperability Executive Committee and sits on the Law Enforcement Information Management Section of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the US Department of Homeland Security’s SAFECOM Advisory Working Group.

Captain Reyes is a native of New Mexico and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from New Mexico State University. He is presently working on his Master’s Degree in Public Administration with a concentration in Administration of Justice at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA.