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Why interoperability
is important
for public safety

Author: Gary Hilson

Emergencies never happen in silos, so interagency communication during major incidents is imperative. That's why interoperability is important.

Even with the level of technology available today, first responders still can't always communicate across networks. Interoperability in emergency management would allow for all agencies at the federal, state, and local levels to easily collaborate with each other during "dark sky" events, such as forest fires, flash floods, and hurricanes.

For an effective crisis response, both law enforcement and emergency response agencies need to agree on a definition. Real interoperability allows for priority and preemption to be passed across telecommunications carriers so that first responders can communicate and share data among multiple agencies. The technology exists to deliver this critical functionality to all public safety agencies, police and fire departments, and the communities they serve.

Why interoperability is important

Not understanding why interoperability is important is one of the most critical challenges facing frontline first responders and the agencies that back them up. Without real interoperability in emergency management, sharing emergency, life-saving information becomes difficult and sometimes impossible to gather in a timely manner.

When disasters occur, law enforcement is often first on scene, and they must collaborate with other emergency responders, including fire and ambulance. All are put at risk from a variety of threats, including smoke, fire, and even toxic chemical spills. All these responders need communications interoperability to effectively assess the situation, maintain the perimeter of the affected area and perform rescue operations — all while ensuring their own safety.

Many different public safety agencies get the call to action for some emergencies, and a lack of interoperability can lead to coordination issues among the various first responders. Without real interoperability, it can be more difficult to make informed decisions or respond quickly enough to save lives, keep first responders safe and bring an incident to a rapid close.

The 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center towers is a big reminder of why interoperability is important. More than 400 first responders were lost because they didn’t receive notifications to evacuate as the radio system used by police and fire officials couldn't communicate with each other; they weren't interoperable. Since that tragedy, interoperability in emergency management has made some progress. New products and standards have helped to increase compatibility between disparate public-safety communications systems.

For example, a Digital Trunked Radio System (DTRS) can allow for law enforcement and other emergency personnel to communicate directly with each other over radios instead of calling into a dispatch center first, according to Grant County Beat. The ability to pull together next-generation data sources, such as in-car diagnostics, social media posts and GPS data, has also enabled law enforcement to work across jurisdictional lines to conduct a data-driven investigation to stop an auto-theft crime spree.

Verizon supports first responders by equipping its 5G Nationwide and 4G LTE networks with priority and preemption capabilities and continues to develop other advanced solutions specifically for public safety agencies. But there are still barriers to achieving real network interoperability. Not only do first responders from different public agencies need to be able to make voice calls regardless of the network they're using, but they also need to be able to communicate and collaborate with text, data, video, and applications, with the appropriate priority and preemption levels.

Real interoperability in emergency management saves lives

Standards are critical for making sure all networks, platforms, and devices work together to provide interoperability across agencies, jurisdictions, carriers and devices. These include standards outlined by the Department of Homeland Security, as well as international standards. Industry must work to provide robust interoperability capabilities that meet those standards as well as the technical requirements of federal, state and local public safety agencies.

Real interoperability is only achieved when it's woven into network planning. Managed service providers play a key role in building a network infrastructure that enables interoperability in emergency management. By leveraging their existing experience and technology investments, a managed services provider can offer robust interoperability capabilities that span jurisdictions, agencies, applications and devices.

To meet the requirements of emergency management, real interoperability must include:

  • Uniform standards between networks
  • Priority and preemption alignment across networks
  • Support for any media, anytime, over any device and on any network
  • 4G LTE / 5G networks interconnecting with disparate public-safety land mobile radio (LMR) systems
  • Device-to-device communications across networks
  • Non-proprietary and non-exclusive public safety applications available to all first responders

In a crisis, it's critical that all first responder voice and data traffic is prioritized with enhanced quality of service from one network to another. The terminating network must recognize those attributes to ensure the success of the call, text and/or data session. This enables first responders to communicate and share data among multiple agencies regardless of network, application, or device.

An advanced network and technology platform such as Verizon Frontline is built with first responders in mind, so they and others on the front lines from multiple public safety agencies have the best quality of service and the ability to share information, no matter what network they're using. Verizon Frontline leverages decades of investment in network infrastructure that's secured with end-to-end encryption and features any-to-any communication capabilities—while also protecting existing and future technology investments with backward compatibility.

Verizon Frontline is built with the mindset that networks should include interoperability capabilities so that first responders can effectively communicate with each other to keep themselves safe and save lives. When a crisis hits, silos can't be allowed to hinder and delay incident resolution.

Real interoperability in emergency management supports the cross-collaboration that public safety agencies need to help first responders make better-informed decisions, using any network, application or device, regardless of jurisdiction.