What is Communications Interoperability?

In response to traumatic events such as multiple-car accidents, natural disasters, terrorism events, or high-speed pursuits, public safety officials from different disciplines and different jurisdictions need to share information effortlessly and in real time, or lives can be lost. They need “interoperability” for their radio systems. Interoperability allows multiple parties to exchange information when and where it is needed, even when disparate systems are involved.

Why do we need interoperable radio communications?

Effective communication between law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical services and other response organizations is a vital part of an effective emergency response. Yet in a number of high profile disasters, the efforts of responders were significantly hampered by communication breakdowns caused by a lack of communications interoperability. Recent examples highlight the need for a coordinated response.

Evacuation Orders Never Received

In September 2001, over 2,700 people died at the World Trade Center, including 340 firefighters. After the south tower collapsed, police command staff issued a building evacuation order over a police emergency radio channel. Tragically, the radios used by firefighters in the north tower operated on a different channel and the message went unheard. Meanwhile, civilians in the buildings were told by 911 operators to remain where they were even after an evacuation order had been given for both towers. The evacuation order was issued over a channel used only by officers on the Port Authority WTC system and 911 operators using a different channel were unaware of the changing orders as they were issued.

Search and Rescue Hampered

In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast with sustained winds of more than 125 mph. Virtually every communication system failed; cell, internet, phone, radio, television, and even satellite communications were disrupted by broken lines, power outages and destruction of base stations. When limited communications were recovered, mutual aid channels available to responders were quickly overwhelmed and officials from different agencies and jurisdictions couldn’t communicate using proprietary radio systems. Rescue teams ended up searching the same area multiple times and missing other areas altogether. More than 1,400 people are estimated to have died during the storm and its aftermath.

Emergency Responders Left in the Dark

In February 2008, two semitrailer trucks jack-knifed on an icy stretch of Interstate 90 just north of Janesville, Wisconsin. In normal circumstances, this would simply be an inconvenience to other motorists – a delay of maybe an hour while tow trucks removed the vehicles. But incompatibility between local, county, and state emergency radios systems made the situation much worse. The State Patrol, responsible for making decisions regarding road closures and traffic rerouting, couldn’t communicate with National Guard units or county highway departments. With limited on-scene confirmation about the traffic jam, decisions were delayed, resulting in a massive backup with thousands of motorists stranded, some for 12 hours, in vehicles running out of gas in frigid temperatures.

Not Just for the Big Events

While we can easily see the impact of failed communications during major events like a terrorist attack, severe weather, and a very public traffic jam, local public safety agencies can provide examples of communication breakdowns that happen on a daily basis. From the mundane traffic stop to the more serious fire, bank robbery, or domestic call – communication interoperability between responding agencies can be the difference between life and death. Creating a reliable statewide solution to enable on-demand, real-time interoperable public safety radio communications is the focus of the Wisconsin Interoperability Initiative.

Interoperability in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Statute assigns oversight for the development and operation of a statewide public safety interoperable communications system to the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs. The DMA is responsible for providing staff support to the State Interoperability Council (IC) and other related interoperability efforts. On this site you’ll find detailed information about the Wisconsin Interoperability Initiative, project governance, and links to resources that will help local communications participate in building an interoperable statewide public safety communications system.