by Alan S. Brown
This month's issue (June 2003) of Responder Safety features an article on the importance of interoperability by former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) James Lee Witt. He makes a strong case for investing in communications systems that allow everyone at an incident to talk with one another.
Witt knows. He was in California following the 1994 Northridge Earthquake and recalls a shelter with one doctor trying to manage 1,500 people. Without interoperable communications, he couldn't call for help. So he drove across town to Red Cross headquarters to get more medics. Similar scenes were repeated at Oklahoma City and following Hurricane Floyd.
But interoperability issues extend beyond communications. For example suburban fire crews that rush to an incident in New York City might not be able to tap hydrants without special adapters. Or exchange SCBA canisters if they are from different manufacturers.
The scene's incident commander might have trouble putting assets into play because similar responder companies have very different training and equipment. They may speak a different command-and-control language. These are serious issues in large-scale response.
Much has been made of the inability of police and fire to communicate following the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Yet former NYC mayor Rudolph Gulliani notes that all 41,000 NYC police share a single standard of training and communications system. The same is true of NYC's 11,000 firefighters. Anywhere else, an emergency as large 9/11 would have attracted scores of different organizations, each with their own standards, equipment and communications.
This has begun to change, though progress is slow. A key driver in change is the Interagency Board for Equipment Standardization and Interoperability (IAB), founded in 1998 to improve the nation's ability to respond to large weapons of mass destruction (WMD) incidents.
IAB focuses on standardization and interoperability of medical, personal protection, communications, detection, explosion remediation and decontamination equipment. Its Standardized Equipment List (SEL) describes the equipment responders need to cope with WMD emergencies.
In the past, SEL might, for example, call for Level B non- encapsulated liquid splash resistant chemical clothing. That is a broad description that includes a very broad range of products. The 2002 SEL, expected out this month, will recommend equipment that meets specific standards. Rather than describe a Level B ensemble, it will now reference a specific standard, such as National Fire Protection Association's NFPA 1992.
In the past, the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Domestic Preparedness (ODP) has used the SEL to determine what equipment purchases it will fund. While it is unlikely that ODP will require compliance with SEL standards this year, the direction is clear.
This is good news for responders. It ensures a product is fit for use. Many newly written codes require greater interoperability, such as universal air connectors that enable any firefighter in a SCBA to supply emergency air to a man down. Linking standards to federal grants also ensures communities spend the extra money on quality equipment.
That's a good start, but enforcing interoperability for WMD alone is not enough. Emergency responders are more likely to face chemical spills, floods, tornadoes and hurricanes. FEMA should consider referencing SEL standards for its funding process.
IAB must also tackle communications issues. This is a politically charged area where major companies with big investments are slugging it out for a slice of the national security pie. Politics are likely to play a role in any solution for years to come. That's no reason for delays in setting standards for future interoperable systems. This has already begun with meetings of communications code makers. It should continue.
The list is seemingly endless. Manufacturers want new legislation to cover liability issues associated with interoperable equipment. The Department of Homeland Security is working on a basic national training curriculum and skills certification. We need more large-scale exercises. And hoses that hook up to any hydrant.
It's a daunting task, but IAB is taking the first step in the right direction.