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Improving communications interoperability among first responders is an imperative for as many as 2.5 million U.S. first response personnel.

NEVER before have communication interoperability and information sharing among intelligence and law enforcement agencies been as critical as they are in this post-9/11 world. This is true not only among governmental agencies, but also among federal and local agencies, first responders, and incident managers.

Communications interoperability has challenged public safety agencies for many years. It is a complex task involving many federal, state, and local entities, as well as a range of inter-related technical issues, such as how the communications spectrum is managed and how local governments purchase and upgrade equipment. The expertise, time, and capital resources required for first responders to develop their own secure mobile data communication technologies are also extremely prohibitive.

In 2003, the National Task Force on Interoperability estimated the number of emergency response officials in the United States--also called first responders--at about 2.5 million. They work for approximately 50,000 different agencies, including law enforcement, fire departments, and emergency medical services. Response to an emergency, a natural disaster, or terrorist incident could involve any or all of these disciplines and additional personnel from neighboring cities and counties, as well as transportation, natural resources, or public utility departments.

In addition to the emergency communications interoperability challenges presented by the sheer numbers of distinct agencies involved, the task force also identified a number of additional barriers. These included fragmentation and limited availability of a radio communications spectrum for dedicated use by emergency personnel, incompatible and aging communications equipment, limited equipment standards within the public safety community, and a lack of appropriate funding strategies.

The task force found that in many cases, when an emergency, disaster, or major incident occurs, respondents attempt to communicate across multiple agencies and jurisdictions using separate radio systems operating on different radio frequencies. In some cases, first responders resort to stopgap measures to overcome communications problems. Some may swap radios with another agency at the scene; others relay messages through a common communications center; and still others employ messengers to physically carry information from one group of responders to another.

As well intentioned as these measures are, they also underscore the deficiencies of our existing systems and have motivated our leadership to take a closer look at the problems and steps necessary to remedy them.

The National Incident Management System
There is little doubt technology is the key to achieving effective communications interoperability and information sharing. Recognizing its importance, in March 2004 the Department of Homeland Security released the National Incident Management System (NIMS) to provide a standardized, nationwide framework to enable federal, state, local, and tribal governments, as well as private sector and non-governmental organizations, to work together effectively and efficiently to prepare for, respond to, and recover from domestic incidents, regardless of cause and size. The "Communication and Information Management" section of NIMS spells out the goals that will be achieved by providing an exclusive communication and information system for incident managers that establishes and maintains communication interoperability and information sharing throughout the duration of the incident response. Incidents of varying sizes and magnitudes are likely to continue occurring and will require interagency coordination, communication, and data sharing. A flexible system with the ability to be preconfigured, reconfigured, rapidly deployed, and expanded to include new users is essential.

All states and local governments, federal departments, and agencies are required to adopt NIMS and use it in their individual domestic incident management and emergency prevention, preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation activities. Under the recently announced Homeland Security deadlines, by the end of 2006 all state and local governments must be NIMS-certified in order to receive federal emergency preparedness grants. Under NIMS, for the first time, all emergency responders will have standardized terminology and incident command system forms, processes, and operating procedures.

New Technology for Incident Management
New technology for unified incident management provides an effective solution for the interoperability and information-sharing issues currently being experienced by incident managers across all jurisdictions. Our technology is based on the Department of Homeland Security's nationwide NIMS model and fulfills the department's requirement for a secure communication and information sharing system in the event of an emergency, natural disaster, or terrorist incident.

The technology can be deployed on site within minutes to provide two-way data communication and alerts using wireless, data-enabled devices such as PDAs, laptops, tablet PCs, or mobile data computers. It can be deployed across a variety of wireless data networks, devices, and wireless data formats. Because of this universal design, other users can quickly connect and begin communicating and sharing information. A secure, real-time information flow occurs among all of an incident management's command, tactical, and support units to better facilitate collaborative incident management. It also ensures effective cross-jurisdictional coordination, decision-making, and swift mobilization of resources if and when they are needed.

Our technology's Common Operating Picture module provides a higher degree of information-sharing and real-time collaboration, which enables incident managers to make informed decisions by ensuring incident data entered into the system is available in real time to all parties. This is achieved by coupling the common operating picture with the ICS forms; as these forms are updated during an incident, they are immediately made available to all incident managers.

Chronological data entered that is captured and archived within the forms can be printed out during or after the incident, ensuring accuracy and timeliness and eliminating the need to recreate the incident from notes, memory recall, and other data later on. Multimedia capabilities take the NIMS Common Operating Picture requirement to a new level by allowing incident managers to view a single or multiple video feeds from multiple sources simultaneously; the Whiteboard feature allows for improved collaboration and decision-making by permitting incident managers to examine documents and work together.

From a server located in the command vehicle or emergency operations center, incident managers log on and immediately begin communicating via instant messaging, exchanging files and sending alerts. New users are added quickly by downloading the user interface and configuring their preferences on the spot.

A Familiar Need, A Looming Deadline
While the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks highlighted the need for better multi-agency incident response coordination and interoperable communication and information systems to the immediate attention of the country's leadership, the need has always been there.

Local governments must capitalize on the financial support and assistance currently being provided by DHS to help them achieve NIMS compliance. They must act now and become NIMS compliant, not solely for fear of losing federal emergency preparedness grants, but also to prevent the loss of another life, which can be realized through better incident response and coordination.

Federal, state, and local governments and agencies face a federal government NIMS compliance deadline of December 2006.

This article appears in the June 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the June 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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