Start Talking

Why public safety agencies must tap technology to bridge gaps and strengthen communications for ideal incident response.

Not until the cataclysmic events of 9/11 did we truly know how essential it was to have tight, precise, coordinated emergency response among public safety agencies. From that horrific September day forward, the public safety community has felt a new sense of urgency to make its response to all kinds of incidents as effective as possible.

Clearly, in 9/11's aftermath, the Department of Homeland Security aggressively has worked to help with this effort via its own emergency response outreach efforts and with funding grants. But have we achieved an acceptable level of preparedness for unforeseen events such as a chemical explosion, school shooting, devastating natural disaster or something equally as large-scale? A close look at public safety communications technology in the United States reveals that some states are well prepared, while many other states still use technology that leaves them behind the curve.

For all municipalities to achieve optimal public safety interoperability — most likely in the form of a broadband wireless network — it will take time and money. And as public safety agencies see their budgets squeezed, coupled with dwindling resources, they need some workable options. After all, if public safety officials cannot seamlessly share information with one another should a major city or regional incident occur, the consequence will be loss of lives and property.

As the term is applied to public safety, interoperability basically allows first responders to talk to each other across agencies and jurisdictions using voice, data or video-on-demand, in real-time, when needed and authorized. To achieve optimal interoperability, it is essential that every responder agency have access to the same critical information.

There now are a few commercial software systems that enable different responders to talk to each other as they view incident details available to all of them.


One such software program is in use at the Rockford (Illinois) Fire Department. Lt. Bill Hyde says he wanted to tie in his electronic pre-incident plans with the computer-aided dispatch system he was using. For 6 years, Hyde has been using the Fire Zone, a software program offered by the CAD Zone Inc., ( for pre-incident diagramming of building layouts. The Fire Zone was created specifically for the fire service and features a large library of pre-drawn symbols, plus a 3D Viewer.

“One of the things we wanted in software for our mobile pre-incident plans was, as our units are dispatched, an electronic information exchange from our CAD system to the fire trucks,” Hyde explains. “I wanted something that was automatically going to bring up preplans for where we were being dispatched.”

Hyde discovered that the CAD Zone offers a companion software program to its Fire Zone offering, called First Look Pro (FLP), which allows fire personnel to organize and locate pre-incident plan diagrams, maps and information.

“It allows us to get drawings in any format and automatically brings them up by interfacing with our dispatch system,” Hyde says. “Our responders are able to take time to look at the drawings, rather than just ride to the call and try to find the preplans.”


Why is the Rockford Fire Department's experience with automating pre-incident planning relevant to interoperability? Chiefly because fire departments already have vital data on most of the buildings in their jurisdiction, making them best equipped to respond to incidents effectively. Therefore, they can share the information with other public safety responders.

It is the information sharing that is so crucial in the absence of a truly interoperable public safety network, and may be all that many municipalities can accomplish for now.

The mobile computer dispatch system installed in the Rockford Fire Department's fire apparatus is the same one used in the city's police patrol cars. Hyde closely worked with his counterpart at the police department to create a joint pre-incident planning system that allows fire and police to have the same information available to them.

“As soon as I saw that First Look Pro had both a fire and a police view (of pre-incident data) available, I realized the police could use this as well,” Hyde says. “We're essentially building a three-legged stool right now with police, fire and 9-1-1, and with FLP, we can all talk to each other and send files back and forth.”

The software includes tools for keeping preplans updated on all the department's computers. By using FLP's new synchronization tool, the user can modify pre-incident plans and synchronize those changes with all other computers on a network that are running FLP. This means that other first responders who receive the preplans and refer to them on mobile computers en route to an incident will have the most updated information.


Some of the larger public safety communities need a formal and wide-ranging interoperable solution. Fresno, Calif., for instance, decided to build an advanced public safety communications network to enhance interoperability and emergency response among several agencies within the city. The network was installed by Alcatel-Lucent and consists of an IP (internet protocol) multiservice platform, digital microwave transmission and network management capabilities that push converged data and voice traffic to several of Fresno's public safety agencies.

The new interoperable network now lets the city manage its sprawling public safety network from a single platform. Fresno's move to a full-scale network makes sense given its population of 500,000, making it the sixth-largest city in California.

According to John Mahrino, vice president of Americas Region Public Affairs for Alcatel-Lucent, “The big benefit (of interoperability networks like the one in Fresno) is that it's all IP. This allows them to interoperate with their legacy equipment, and to add applications that can work across many agencies and jurisdictions.”

Mahrino adds that Fresno's network, and others like it that Alcatel-Lucent installs, allows first responders to work and communicate with each other. Therefore, “the cost of upgrading this network will be much more economical,” Mahrino says.


The word interoperability easily gets confused, since many public safety agencies tend to think of it somewhat one-dimensionally, such as using just two-way radio communications for incident response. “What we're really saying is that interoperability means being able to use data across platforms,” says Jason Trotter, sales manager for FIREHOUSE Software. Trotter said he sees a trend towards rising interest from public safety agencies in jointly having access to pre-incident planning information.

FIREHOUSE Software is a fire and EMS records management system. It uses an integrated database and graphical user interface so data is entered one time. Modules for the system are available for: 1) stand-alone workstations and local area networks; 2) wide area networks and departments requiring remote access to a central database; and 3) for remote, wireless access to a central database and easy access from anywhere using a Web browser.

The most widely used module is FH Mobile, a suite of applications designed for mobile computers installed in responding vehicles for use in the field. Trotter notes that FH Mobile is gaining interest among police departments. And, Trotter adds, “Now, we're actually having CAD (computer-aided dispatch) companies come back to us and wanting to provide it through their MDTs (mobile data terminals) to law enforcement, fire and EMS.”


Gert Zoutendijk, deputy fire marshal for the Lake Oswego (Oregon) Fire Department, has seen firsthand how beneficial pre-incident planning software can be for responding to large-scale incidents.

Recently, the department was called to a local school where three adults and 42 children were sent to six different hospitals after becoming ill from inhaling fumes of lacquer spray paint used in a room with an open ceiling. The heavy paint odor stayed close to the ground, which triggered the illness.

“It was a full alarm,” Zoutendijk says of the incident. “We had two different incidents at the same place — a hazardous materials incident and a medical incident.”

Lake Oswego Fire Department uses the FIREHOUSE Mobile Preplan software to provide pre-incident plan information on primary buildings and schools. Because firefighters had a pre-fire plan for the school, along with the police department and the Lake Oswego 9-1-1 dispatch center, they all could see the same information and communicate with each other as to the best team approach for containing the paint odor within school buildings.

Once arriving at the school, the FIREHOUSE Software Mobile Preplan aided responders with information on the location of the paint so that a hazmat team could contain it, and where medics should be positioned to receive and treat the students.


A developing trend within interoperable public safety circles is that police departments are seeing major advantages in using the same pre-incident planning software used by fire agencies. Such is the case with the Holland, Michigan Police Department.

“There's definite advantages to a police department having this software, especially when it can run with other programs,” says the department's captain, Jack Dykstra.

The Holland Police Department used a trial version of the CAD Zone's First Look Pro software to view pre-incident plans of the city's primary buildings. The Holland Fire Department introduced FLP to Dykstra. Fire officials adopted the software after Dykstra observed a successful test whereby the Ottawa County dispatch center, which dispatches calls for both Holland's fire and police, sent a trial call to the fire department and the software's key features kicked into action.

The software accepts all types of attached files to pre-incident plan records, handles a large database of records quickly, works with many dispatch systems and synchronizes all computers using the software with the latest updated data on pre-incident plans.

“I was impressed with the software,” Dykstra says, “and also with the mobile mapping component plus the site information and all-hazards alert feature. The information comes down in layers, and what I liked about that is the closer you get, the more detailed the information becomes.”

The Holland Police Department likely will deploy the software in all 20 of its patrol cars once an upgrade of mobile data terminals is completed by summer of 2009.

What Dykstra says he values most is the information that FLP pre-incident plans can provide, such as building entries and exits, overall floorplan and, especially, the presence of hazardous materials.

Says the captain: “If we take the time to go back and look at the information [in the pre-incident plan], we can avoid dangerous situations.”

Dykstra plans to recommend the pre-incident planning software to Ottawa County and to all law enforcement agencies within it. He also plans to seek regional Homeland Security Department funding for states since a portion of it can be used for interoperability implementation.


To attain true interoperability, Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Communications & Technology Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), argues a wireless broadband network — on a local level, but preferably on a national scale — is the solution. McEwen said that such a national network would eliminate fragmented communications among agencies and help allow jurisdictions in multiple counties or a region achieve better joint response to incidents through quicker shared information.

“We're looking at the national level for federal funding so that the local level has the resources it needs to implement public safety networks,” says McEwen.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) also is weighing in on the value of interoperability. It has created an NFPA Technology Committee on Data Exchange, which will address how information among fire departments and associated first responder agencies is displayed, gathered and shared.


Jim Smalley, NFPA staff liaison for the committee, feels there first must be emphasis on “operability” versus interoperability. “We have to be able to operate at an emergency scene with everyone who needs to be responding to that emergency,” Smalley says.

Smalley fears even this effort can be hampered by varying pieces of data in various formats being pushed out to responders from different sources and through incompatible technology. However, information sharing is becoming more streamlined thanks to the types of software profiled in this article.

Even with such software or other similar solutions in place, Smalley cautions that there needs to be filters in the distribution of data so that each public safety agency gets information relevant to its expertise and responsibilities. Meanwhile, says Smalley, “You still have to know what kind of essential data you want to put in [for interoperability to function seamlessly].”

Smalley adds that “interoperability has to be way better than it is,” noting that uniformity and consistency are key elements.

In many public safety communities, information sharing is the best they can accomplish in the current strained U.S. economy until full interoperability is achieved.

Whichever of these two levels is in place, says Smalley, “Jurisdictional lines have to basically dissolve. We shouldn't worry about who is going to respond when it's a public safety issue.”

Bob Galvin is a Portland, Ore., freelance writer who writes on topics dealing with interoperability and associated technology. He can be reached at [email protected].


Whether your public safety effort is local or a regional interoperable system, don't feel as though you must fund it alone. Various funding sources are available. Some of these include:

Public Safety Interoperable Communications Grant Program.

Department of Homeland Security. When visiting this site, click on the “Local Resources” category, then click again on “State Homeland Security Grants.”

The Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance.

The Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program.

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