Wednesday, December 13, 2006

National Interoperability Baseline Survey

DHS recently released the results of a baseline survey on interoperability for first responders. They survyed "both fire response/emergency medical services (EMS) and law enforcement agencies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia," with 6,819 agencies responding. This means their findings are at the 99 percent confidence level.

The study assessed "the five critical elements—governance; policies, practices, and procedures; technology; training and exercises; and usage—that determine an organization’s capacity for interoperability." It took three levels of interoperability into account:

These levels include interoperability across disciplines (i.e., between law enforcement and fire response within the same jurisdiction), across jurisdictions (i.e., between agencies of the same discipline across local jurisdictions), and between agencies of the same discipline across state and local government.
Although the stated goal of the survey was to "create a national and statistically valid snapshot of the capacity for and use of interoperability," DHS was careful to point out that it's not possible to describe the nation's interoperability status with a simple, single national "score."
No one-dimensional scale can adequately define the current state of interoperability in the Nation, or the progress left to be made, because the capacity for interoperability is a complex issue that involves technological, political, operational, and human variables.
Here are a few key findings (though not all of them):
  • About two-thirds of agencies report using interoperability to some degree in their operations. According to our frequency of use and familiarity question, which addresses how often and in what situations interoperability are used, about one-third of agencies use interoperability primarily for out-of-the-ordinary events, and another third interoperate both for out-of-theordinary events and in their day-to-day operations.
  • The smallest agencies, as a group, tend to be at earlier stages of development than larger agencies.
  • Fire response/EMS and law enforcement agencies tend to show the same level of development in most areas of the Continuum.
  • Cross-discipline and cross-jurisdiction interoperability tends to be at a more advanced stage than state-local interoperability.
As of now, technological hurdles are not the main obstacle to interoperability:
Perhaps because technological issues have been placed at the forefront of interoperability problems, technology displays the highest level of development of any of the elements in the Continuum.
Of all the variables that determine interoperability, planning and governance is one of the most critical:
Interoperable communications cannot emerge on their own, nor can any single agency implement interoperability, without … collective leadership and support.

Moreover, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) has reported that, “The single greatest barrier to addressing the decades-old problems of interoperable communications has been the lack of effective, collaborative interdisciplinary and intergovernmental planning.”

Strategic plans for interoperability are the exception rather than the norm. Only 20 percent of agencies have strategic plans to ensure interoperability across disciplines, and 19 percent have plans to ensure interoperability across jurisdictions. For state-local interoperability, that proportion falls slightly, to 16 percent.
One of the interesting findings of the study is that, because of the nature of their work and the greater ability and need for cross-jurisdictional cooperation, fire and EMS agencies are more likely to have established decision-making groups and agreements with other agencies:
This question [of establishment of a public safety decision-making group] also showed the most dramatic instance of one discipline completely outdistancing the other in the advanced stage. SMEs reviewing these findings were not surprised to see fire response/EMS more likely to report in the advanced stage in this instance than law enforcement. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the advanced stage is reaching out to groups beyond traditional first responders, and it was agreed the fire response/EMS are often in contact with a wide variety of groups in their response efforts.

[Regarding cross-jurisdiction agreements] law enforcement is organized along political jurisdictions, and much of its operations across jurisdictional lines are codified in local law. Fire response/EMS agencies, on the other hand, are not organized according to political jurisdictions, and their cooperation is consequently not codified in law. They would thus have a greater need to establish agreements for working across political jurisdictions.
Another interesting finding is that collaboration breeds collaboration:
Several [agencies] expected improved interoperability would lead to faster response time—removing intermediary communications and ensuring that all responders could communicate to the incident commander. Various agencies also provided examples of interoperability improving response, from enhancing the safety of ambulance crews in high-crime areas to the prevention of secondary accidents at incidents. Others noted that reduced barriers to interoperability would lead to greater trust and improved working relationships between neighboring agencies—an interesting comment, given that an often-cited barrier to interoperability specifically is lack of working relations. These agencies are suggesting that simply working more regularly together could overcome barriers that tend to inhibit agencies from working together.
The thing that I take from this survey is that collaboration is an absolutely essential precondition to interoperability. And not only does collaboration aid in the development of interoperable systems, but it can also help in other ways, such as improved response time and greater unity of effort, even during the response to everyday incidents.

Note: As others have done before, this report also describes the problems that resulted from a lack of interoperability on 9/11 and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina:
[L]ack of interoperability [has] continued to result in the unnecessary loss of lives and property. As the 9/11 Commission Report stated, many of the first responders that responded to the attacks in New York City “lacked access to a [common] radio channel on which the Port Authority police evacuation order was given.” As the catastrophic events of September 11, 2001 showed the entire Nation, direct correlation exists between effective communications interoperability and first responders’ ability to save lives.

In August and September 2005, the ramifications of the lack of communications interoperability were once more brought to national attention in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The massive damage to communications infrastructure alone wreaked havoc on the ability of any single agency to coordinate its own relief efforts in the Gulf Coast area. Establishing simple internal operability compounded problems with achieving interoperability with other agencies. The House of Representatives report on the response to Katrina noted, “There was no voice radio contact with surrounding parishes or state and Federal agencies. Lives were put at risk and it created a direct operational impact on their ability to maintain control of a rapidly deteriorating situation within the city, carry out rescue efforts and control the evacuation of those who had failed to heed the call for evacuation.”

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