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Today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) public safety landscape demands interoperability between organizations. However, when those who work in or support public safety hear the word “interoperability,” many fixate on the panacea of interoperable public safety two-way radio communications that have been a hot topic for more than two decades. On the other hand, the need for rapid, real-time information exchange between public safety agencies beyond radio communications remains a peripheral discussion among a smaller group of practitioners.
The Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington (DFW) metropolitan area consists of more than 7 million people in 13 counties with over 200 cities, including 15 cities with at least 100,000 population. The North Texas Interoperable Radio Network comprises 78 primary system jurisdictions and organizations and another 91 mutual aid jurisdictions and organizations. Further, the network consistently expands capacity and subscribers on its Project 25 system. That means 169 public safety entities in North Texas can share information through two-way radio. Unfortunately, only a handful of those agencies can transmit real-time data to multiple agencies on a non-radio platform, such as a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system.
While public safety agencies have progressed toward radio interoperability with the help of the P25 standards, little progress has occurred in other interoperable arenas. For instance, only a handful of regional Emergency Communications Centers (ECC)serving multiple jurisdictions exist in the DFW area. It is more common for public safety entities in neighboring jurisdictions not to have multi-functional multi-jurisdictional CAD systems.
Large-scale emergency events routinely spill over nominal jurisdictional boundaries in populated areas. Further, even the best two-way radio communications can become congested during the initial multi-jurisdictional response. In addition, the amount of incoming radio traffic in the early stages of such an event can overwhelm the most seasoned incident commanders. Finally, incident command lacks vital CAD system information inherent with a single jurisdiction response.
Imagine a large-scale emergency event that requires a multi-functional and multi-jurisdictional response. With interoperable ECC CAD systems, on-scene commanders would have access to all responder GIS locations, responder agency call signs, real-time call notes from multiple 911 centers, fire pre-plans for various jurisdictions, and a running multi-agency activity log. Interoperable CAD systems would provide real-time actionable data and reduce emergency radio and cellular congestion.
“The road to achieving full public safety interoperability will not be easy, but the outcome is worth the effort for the safety of our citizens and first responders”
Project 25 mandated standards for interoperability across vendors and compliance by public safety entities. In other words, jurisdictions can communicate via radio regardless of their system manufacturer. Similarly, jurisdictions could share critical real-time data across various software systems with mandatory interoperability CAD standards. Of course, a path forward is easier to write about than accomplish.
A cursory search of public safety radio systems yields a handful of manufacturers operating in the space. On the other hand, at least 20 companies sell public safety CAD systems. Moreover, some CAD systems are discipline-specific, meaning they are geared toward law enforcement, fire rescue, or emergency medical services. Further, the FBI mandate for law enforcement agencies to transition to the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) triggered many law enforcement agencies to purchase or upgrade to integrated CAD and Records Management Systems (RMS). While practical for law enforcement, the integrated systems complicate information sharing within the Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Security Policy.
The road to achieving full public safety interoperability will not be easy, but the outcome is worth the effort for the safety of our citizens and first responders.