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The critical role of interoperability in crisis response

Interoperability is not just a technical term; it’s the backbone of a coordinated and efficient emergency response strategy



Interoperability is a foundational element in the effective functioning of police and first responders. It promotes collaboration, enhances communication and ultimately contributes to a more efficient and coordinated emergency response, with the overarching goal of ensuring public safety and minimizing the impact of emergencies and disasters.

In October 2023, CentralSquare hosted a panel discussion at the International Association of Chiefs of Police annual conference to discuss this important topic and emerging trend in first responder technology.

The panel discussion was moderated by Pam Irons, Strategic Director of Sales for CentralSquare. The panel featured:

  • Billy Evans, Executive Director of Public Safety and Chief of Police of Boston College, formerly Commissioner of the Boston Police Department
  • Jim McDonnell, Director of Safe Communities USC Price School of School of Policy, formerly Sheriff Los Angeles County, CA
  • Scott Panacek, Product Management Lead, CentralSquare

Here is a summary of the key questions asked during the session and the panel’s response.

1. Interoperability is a hot topic in public safety. For those in the audience who might be new to the concept, what does interoperability mean to you and how does it help emergency response?

Billy Evans: Law enforcement and first responders cannot continue to operate in silos; the need to rely on outside agencies is more important than ever. The ability to communicate with different agencies and share resources during an incident is critically important. In emergencies, seamless communication is essential for coordinating responses and ensuring the safety of both responders and the public. Interoperability allows different agencies and departments to communicate in real time, regardless of the technology or systems they use, facilitating a coordinated and efficient response.

Jim McDonnell: Interoperability means situational awareness and the ability to communicate with partners to build trust through networks and relationships. Interoperable systems allow for the integration of data from various sources, providing a comprehensive view of the situation. This enhanced situational awareness enables responders to make more informed decisions and adapt their strategies based on real-time information. Floods, fires and unrest WILL happen, so it’s essential to have protocols in place. Police leaders need to know the strengths and weaknesses of their agency and surrounding agencies. Good leaders are humble enough to ask for help and resources and join forces for the common good. Without interoperability, there is no ability to communicate with local partners and resources, which leads to cluelessness.

Scott Panacek: Crisis is the usual driver for interoperability, but it can and should also be used as part of day-to-day functions. Even when agencies are not using the same CAD or RMS system, the need to communicate effectively still exists. Police and first responders often operate in complex and dynamic environments that require collaboration among various agencies, including law enforcement, fire departments, emergency medical services and others. Interoperability ensures that these entities can work together seamlessly, sharing critical information and resources to address emergencies more effectively.

2. Can you please share specific critical responses you experienced that relied on cross-collaboration with multiple agencies? How would technology that enables interoperability have helped in those incidents?

Jim McDonnell: Critical incidents require quick assessments: Who? What? When? Where? They require collaboration and logistical support from police, fire, EMS and public works. Without interoperability, everyone arrives on the scene with fresh eyes and no clue what is going on or what the other agencies know. California wildfires are a great example of this, along with the Route 91 Harvest Festival mass shooting in Las Vegas. As part of the Special Enforcement Bureau, I never expected to reach out to an agency four hours away to offer support, but that’s exactly what happened. That simply would not be possible without interoperability.

Billy Evans: Interoperability enables the sharing of resources and information across different agencies, preventing duplication of efforts and ensuring that resources are allocated efficiently. This is particularly important in large-scale emergencies or disasters where multiple agencies may be involved in the response efforts. When discussing the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, it was important to know the capacities, resources and strengths of surrounding agencies. Communication was critical in order to share the response and share capabilities. It would have been incredibly useful to have CAD systems that could communicate with each other at that time for a more effective multi-agency response.

Scott Panacek: During emergencies, time is often a critical factor. Interoperability reduces delays caused by incompatible communication systems or information silos. Rapid and effective communication can be a life-saving factor, especially in situations where quick decisions are necessary. We’ve seen call center response times go down due to the interoperability of our CAD software. When response times go down, people get help faster.

3. One of the major benefits of interoperability solutions is the ability to connect dispatchers and first responders with hospitals, utility companies and schools. What are the benefits you see from having that level of collaboration with non-emergency response institutions?

Billy Evans: As a chief, you need to build and strengthen your relationships with local resources like hospitals, treatment facilities and social workers. Unified command posts rely heavily on local resources during large events, and you need relationships and collaboration with outside agencies. The significance of interoperability solutions extends beyond emergency response agencies to include collaboration with non-emergency institutions like hospitals, utility companies, and schools.

Jim McDonnell: At the University of Southern California, we have to have collaborative relationships with police, fire and EMS: that collaboration and communication is critically important. We regularly have large events, and now we’re planning for the 2026 World Cup and the 2028 Olympics. Interoperability allows for the integration of different communication systems, enabling efficient coordination and a unified response to any security or safety challenges that may arise.

Scott Panacek: Interoperability is all about building and maintaining relationships to work across disciplines. It equates to reduced costs and more lives saved. Large events require careful resource management. Interoperability enables the sharing of information about available resources, deployment strategies, and contingency plans among various agencies. This ensures that resources are allocated strategically to address potential issues and emergencies.

4. One of the misconceptions some have about interoperability is that it’s only about connecting with agencies who are your direct neighbors geographically but in fact you can connect with agencies across the country and across state lines. Can you address that misconception?

Jim McDonnell: Police response can look very different from one agency to the next, and police aren’t great at explaining the “why” behind our actions and strategies. Police agencies that embrace interoperability are more efficient and respond quicker. They share intelligence, learn needs and know what situations they’re getting into so they can be prepared by the time of arrival. Interoperability with outside agencies allows you to address needs and get additional resources ASAP. For example, helicopters to cover a missing officer gap.

Billy Evans: Departments are overworked and under-resourced. Tech is so important because it enables agencies to work smarter and more efficiently. We can’t continue to operate in silos, we MUST help each other. Not sharing RMS and CAD information is so old school and doesn’t help the profession. Lowering standards to meet recruitment demands won’t help the profession either, but investing in technology will.

Scott Panacek: Systems that can connect become a force multiplier. Agencies operating across state lines often have different jurisdictions and responsibilities. Interoperability enables cross-jurisdictional collaboration by facilitating communication and data sharing between law enforcement, emergency services and other relevant agencies. This collaboration is vital for addressing incidents that may span multiple jurisdictions.

Dr. Michelle Gundy is a researcher, consultant, veteran and SME in the fields of communication, trauma and policing (both civilian and officer trauma). She is a doctor of education in organizational change and leadership with graduate and undergraduate degrees in communications. She educates members of law enforcement on the emotional, physical, neurobiological and physiological effects of trauma and how it relates to the field of policing.