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Providing Reliable Interoperability for First Responders

The emergency communications ecosystem can be supported by planning in advance, developing relationships, and implementing new technology where appropriate.
Notes From the Field
Date Published
March 15, 2021

As a former Deputy Chief with the United States Park Police, I know what it’s like for first responders to struggle with communications issues.

I’ve experienced the frustration of trying to use my cellphone only to find I have no signal, leaving me unable to communicate with my colleagues. I know the feeling of trying to make a transmission on my radio, but being unable to do so since others were already using the dedicated incident talk group, oftentimes “stepping on each other” to get a transmission on the land mobile radio systems.

I have lived through many instances of looking up at my monitors for the video coming from tactical deployed cameras for situational awareness, only to find “blue screens,” as the communications links were impacted by cellular network saturation created by the special event or mass gathering.

These occurrences are not only frustrating, but dangerous. Without a reliable way to communicate with the field, incident commanders lack the necessary situational awareness to ensure an appropriate response to the situations they are routinely called on to manage.

In my role as the Statewide Interoperability Coordinator with the DC Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, it’s my responsibility to make sure that incident commanders of today don’t have to live through the experiences I had in the past.

First responders depend on a seamless flow of voice, video, and data communications to guide their response whether it be a small-scale incident, a significant natural or manmade disaster, or a pre-planned event where tens of thousands of people will be present. Emergency response officials must be able to communicate quickly and easily to fully coordinate their preparedness and response in these situations.

Every day, I engage with District agencies, federal partners, and other National Capital Region stakeholders, including the private sector, to ensure the emergency communications ecosystem is functioning at its peak. Interoperability means I go everywhere.

In my experience, there are three important actions that agencies must take to ensure interoperable communications are available for first responders in critical moments:

  1. Plan in advance.
  2. Establish and maintain relationships.
  3. Adopt and integrate new technology into a communications plan when appropriate.

Planning for Large-Scale Events

Here in Washington D.C., we’re no stranger to large-scale events where interoperable communications is critical for first responders. From the State of the Union address to the March on Washington and a Presidential Inauguration every four years, planning for these large-scale events is crucial to providing an appropriate response.

Once you know an event is happening, getting an early start is certainly important in building a communications strategy, but you also shouldn’t wait for an event to begin considering your options. Communications planning should be done on an ongoing basis by engaging with your key stakeholders to better understand their priorities. By understanding the priorities of all agencies in your jurisdiction, you will become a better planner.

In your preparation meetings, be sure that your training exercises cover a wide variety of scenarios where communications may be impacted. Unfortunately, the availability of communications during a response is often taken for granted.

Our agencies in the District are in a constant state of planning and preparing since the frequency of these major events is continuous. That has placed us in a better position to respond when a no-notice event comes into play.

Partnerships across all levels of government are required to make sure the right information gets to the right people at the right time. These partnerships are what enable seamless interoperable communications for first responders. During the planning process, bring all agencies together to combine their individual expertise and knowledge to create the most comprehensive plan possible.

Establishing relationships in advance with colleagues in your jurisdiction is a major benefit. It’s very hard to establish a relationship during a crisis, especially when you can expect turnover in government, non-government, and private sector personnel.  Not having the access to the right person at the right time can be devastating to incident response. Keeping a fresh rolodex is a must.

Relationships with all cellular carriers is also critical.  Only through this relationship will you be able to ascertain in what areas their network performance challenges are, since this information is usually kept in close hold due to the competitive and proprietary nature of their business. 

Some of the topics you should be discussing with your cellular carrier providers include the coordination of permits for deployable cell on wheels or cell on light trucks, access to rooftops for antenna improvements, historic or aesthetic issues, and network optimization. First responders need all of the cellular industry to be on their “A” game every day to help ensure a complete emergency communications ecosystem.

Following an event, be sure to make after-action reports a top priority. Specifically, look for any gaps or challenges that may have been identified and evaluate whether that was something you could have planned for or if it was truly unexpected. If there are areas to improve upon, you must acknowledge that immediately and not fall into the same traps as you begin preparing for the next event, whether it’s unexpected or pre-planned.

Any good planner will not be shy in highlighting and addressing the issues that after-action reports describe. After all, that’s what this process is all about, how do we get better?

Impact of COVID-19 on Planning

The modern era, especially in the time of COVID-19, is forcing us to become better at virtualization and visualization. Just like the ways we are all adjusting in our personal lives, incident commanders are becoming more dependent upon technology to provide them with a virtual experience from a remote location.

For example, visualization tools, such as mapping data from geographic information systems (GIS), have become even more critical when we can’t have as many people at a specific location due to COVID safety concerns.

Here in the District, one initiative we’re moving forward with is connecting all of the department operations centers (DOC) in what we call a DOC-to-DOC project. This project creates a virtual emergency operations center using the already widely-used online team collaboration tools where there is a collective dialogue, but it also opens channels where one operation center can speak to another individually while remaining connected to the primary channel. This way no one has to be in one location physically, and we still have access to all the necessary information and can communicate individually with another operation center.

We were collaborating virtually pre-COVID, but the pandemic has certainly pushed the envelope and changed a lot of the ways we operate. Our DOC-to-DOC project will expand the capability of getting on a virtual call to include individual communications and file sharing.

Adapting to New Technology

As the District’s Statewide Interoperability Coordinator, I want as many tools in the toolbox as possible. 

Yet, one challenge with the rapid rate of technological advancement is integrating new tools into a communications plan. Not every new or enhanced technology is appropriate for a public safety organization’s mission. New technology and equipment come with a delicate balance; we can’t forget how to operate without it.

When new opportunities with technology do arise, we depend on organizations such as the National Council of Statewide Interoperability Coordinators, SAFECOM, and the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, who have experience in testing emerging technologies and provide background on the capabilities of new tools. If we see something that can help us, our first step is to include it in our plans for large-scale events, as they are our living labs for testing new technology. Our communications plans never depend upon this new tool, but the event can provide a perfect opportunity to see how they operate in our working environment.

With any new piece of technology, it’s critical that you follow this policy of testing and evaluating in your own environment. When vendors advertise how something works, it’s usually in a controlled setting without the everyday factors you have to deal with, including operational, environmental, social, or geographic factors.  Don’t fall victim to their marketing campaign or the “wow” factor that can exude from a presentation.  You need to test on site, with your people, and under the real-world pressures presented by the incident or event you are monitoring.

For example, our initial experiences with FirstNet were challenging. In 2018, we asked FirstNet to test their network with us during the March For Our Lives event and the Washington Capitals Stanley Cup parade. In both instances, we had connectivity issues, but I’m happy to say I believe FirstNet to be much more reliable today.

As of December 2020, we’re seeing more and more District agencies migrate to FirstNet as Band 14 becomes more widely available – the expectation is that Band 14 will cover about 95% of the District of Columbia by the end of 2020. FirstNet will continue to be utilized by DC first responders moving forward, and we incorporated the network into our plans for the 2021 Inauguration. 

Preparing for 5G

With 5G networks on the horizon, there will be new opportunities and challenges.

The 5G network will be much faster than its 4G predecessor, improving latency issues in the time it takes to transmit data across devices. I expect 5G to be critical in helping us improve the emergency communications ecosystem, enhancing the capabilities of our first responders and the public safety community.  

This faster network will be important for the eventual deployment of autonomous vehicles and unmanned aerial systems, while also increasing our capacity in the workplace, wherever that may be in the future, from our office, to our home, or anywhere a virtual connection is required.

However, 5G is still not a reality. We will still be in the LTE/4G platform for the considerable future. Many questions also remain regarding how the 5G networks will perform in certain areas. For example, how will 5G function in the subterranean locations throughout the District, including in tunnels and within the metro rail system.

Overcoming Challenges with Communications

Interoperable communications continues to be one of the top national issues facing our first responders and public safety officials. Without reliable and seamless interoperability, it is extremely difficult for responders to effectively respond to any situation.

I’ve been involved in multiple events that have taken us back to “caveman times.” Certainly the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 brought us to our knees as communications was one of the first areas to be impacted. Superstorm Sandy in 2012 also wiped out the necessary communications infrastructure at a most critical time.

And that’s just based on my experience. If you look across the country, where numerous jurisdictions are having to deal with hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados, and other natural disasters the situations where communications could fail seem endless.

Everybody wants reliability when they use their cellphones, but when the infrastructure goes down, it doesn’t matter if you’re on a 4G or 5G network, you still need to know how to operate – and adapt – in that environment.

Teams must not only have protocols and standard operating procedures in place for emergency situations, but they must be practicing them with partners on a regular basis. In public safety, we don’t have the option of sitting this one out. When the bell rings, we always have to answer the call, and we must be prepared.

About Notes From the Field

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ aims to address the critical questions of the criminal justice field, particularly at the state and local levels.

NIJ posts Notes From the Field series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America’s streets today.

Notes From the Field is not a research-based publication. Instead, it presents lessons learned by on-the-ground criminal justice leaders, from years of experience and thinking deeply about criminal justice issues.

Date Published: March 15, 2021