First Responders: If you read one article about interoperability, read this one

By: John Larregui

This Marine and Verizon leader signed up to be a firefighter on September 11, 2001. Now he advocates for application- and device-based interoperability for today’s first responders using group text, live video, push-to-talk and more.

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When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, everything went down. First responders set up a central hub in San Juan, and I’d get texts sometimes at midnight from those scouts, who spent the day driving hundreds of miles, doing many missions a day, as well as looking to save lives. When they’d get back to San Juan, they’d send messages about where they could get a signal. We took in all that information—from other carriers, too—to get a picture about what was happening onsite.

I have a team that manages our Verizon Frontline Federal Public Safety Mobility partnerships. That means I’m responsible for anything with a mobile connection that’s used by large federal agencies with Public Safety as part of their mission across the country.

Photo credit: Ryan Donnell

When there’s a disaster, we have specialized teams that partner with all the internal Verizon Frontline groups to help support our customers and get them through it as quickly, efficiently and thoughtfully as we can. If a fiber line is cut and nothing’s working, we find a way to restore connectivity. Sometimes it’s as basic as sending out mobile devices and mobile hotspots, or as essential as sending in any of our Mobile Command Centers trucks that provide satellite, internet connections and workstations within the truck.

What does interoperability mean?

But the most important thing is making sure that the applications we use in first response emergencies need to work with all media, across all devices. This gets to the heart of interoperability. Real interoperability means the ability for first responders to communicate and share data with whom we need, when we need, regardless of network, device, platform or solution.

Photo credit: Ryan Donnell

If I only have a radio, it needs to work with a phone. If I only have a phone, it needs to work with push-to-talk. In my role on the Verizon Frontline team, I don’t make those applications, or the technology, but because of my experience on the ground as a volunteer firefighter and a Marine, I advocate for interoperability any time a new application is being created, or a manufacturer is looking to partner with us.

My experience as a Marine and a volunteer firefighter informs my multimedia approach to interoperability.

If you send a video from an Android device to an iOS device via MMS, it can show up distorted. Some people may not be able to respond to the group text in real time if they’re out of network, or some can’t see the pictures or videos. That’s a hassle when you’re trying to organize a family picnic. It’s a major obstacle when you’re trying to organize an emergency response.

Photo credit: Ryan Donnell

As a firefighter, I was never too keen on the radio. I wanted to go in. I wanted to put water on the fire. I wanted to find what I needed to find, and I wanted to get out.

What I found was that there was always a lot of chatter on the radio. Especially when there was mutual aid and many, many people coming together to help. Everybody was talking on the radio. You were never able to really get your point across, or really hear what was happening. So we started using cell phones.

Radio can’t play back video

As a volunteer firefighter, if I’m the first to arrive on the scene and I have a smartphone, I can send a live video to a group of specific people. With a smartphone I can send that message directly to the volunteer firefighters getting ready to hop on a truck. Looking at a picture, or a video, from the scene gives me a better sense of what’s happening before I even get there.

And when the fire’s out, I have this thread of information that I can look back on for training purposes. A radio doesn’t have the ability to play back video or see the back and forth via text.

We started seeing more fire departments using smartphones this way. Group texting was easy because you could take a picture with the phone. I still use a radio in some situations, but it’s much easier to get situational awareness with a picture or video.

Doing the right thing matters even more after a disaster

After a disaster, we try to bring a sense of normalcy back. That can mean helping people charge their phone, or helping send a video to people’s families—no matter their service provider—to let everyone know they’re ok.

In Puerto Rico, when we realized everything was down—landlines, internet and radios—we worked with the satellite side of the business and others at Verizon to send satellites there. We packaged up satellite dishes in hard cases, plus additional equipment, put everything on pallets, and one of our federal government partner agencies flew it there. We worked with other carriers and operators to get connectivity in a dire situation to as many people as possible.

Photo credit: Ryan Donnell

Whether you’re fighting a fire across town or doing disaster relief across the country—interoperability needs to work in all places, with all media, across all devices.

Learn more about the importance of true interoperability.

Verizon Frontline supports real interoperability and understands from customers and their experience just how critical cross-agency communication and collaboration is during emergencies and natural disasters, which is why we’ve spent years building out capabilities to deliver it. Verizon Frontline is the advanced network and technology that has been built for first responders to meet their unique needs, providing comprehensive, end-to-end technologies first responders need to accomplish their missions and better serve their communities.

About the author:

John Larregui is a Marine, volunteer firefighter, and is a managing partner in Federal Mobility Sales for Verizon focusing on the Public Sector.

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