By Robert Policht
Interoperability is the ability of a system to work with or use the parts or equipment of another system. The practice of interoperability has become an important topic of discussion in emergency management, primarily in the fire service. This topic may also be viewed as the ability to efficiently operate in conjunction with other resources and equipment. Interagency interoperability takes this concept and adds the elements of other agencies and mutual aid.
Interoperability in emergency management, and specifically the fire service, has a variety of angles that may be expanded on just like a web. As in the case of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), the three pillars include the multiagency coordination system, public information, and the incident command system. Each of these pillars can be expanded on and dissected into its own freestanding network of concepts and information. The concept of interagency interoperability includes levels of personnel, companies, and departments, which create an umbrella for many elements including communications, equipment, and training.
Communications and interoperability may be the most important element of this entire concept because being able to exchange information between units is vital to every operation’s successful outcome. The fire service has made the change to plain language rather than the continued use of 10 codes. These codes were common throughout history and are still used in some agencies around the county. In 2006, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) issued a NIMS Alert that required the use of plain language for “multi-agency, multi-jurisdiction, and multi-discipline events” (FEMA 2006). This came from the NIMS Integration Center and has since made the exchange of information among multiple resources more efficient. This element leads into the type of equipment used by companies and departments.
Equipment interoperability is an element that is more important for an agency because of the potential for relocating equipment and reassigning personnel. An example of this can be depicted as a company replacing older hydraulic rescue tools (HRTs) with a different brand where the fittings of the equipment do not match up to other apparatus in the department’s fleet. Should a department respond to a motor vehicle crash with entrapment and the initial rescue company begin to operate its newer HRTs and the tool fails, there is a need to replace that tool in the operation.
The second rescue company that arrives with a different or spare set of HRTs may not be able to connect its tools to the initial hydraulic lines. Those seconds or minutes may have an impact on the operation. A simpler example could be discussed with an engine company that stretches to a remote area and needs to extend the line via the farthest point. A mutual-aid company arrives to assist and takes its own dry line to connect and extend the initial line; however, the connection cannot be completed because the two companies have different threads. These kinds of potential issues may be discussed and avoided by training often with resources that may respond to any incident in a respective jurisdiction.
Training is extremely vital in the fire service and imperative when discussing interagency interoperability. The first step is to understand the basics of different operations. In the case of extending the line, it should be known to adapt and improvise if there are different threaded connections by using various adapters. Consistent training helps combat the potential for losing time during an operation that may have interoperability issues.
Simply having a discussion with mutual-aid personnel will allow you to become aware of what kinds of resources and equipment they use. Once the awareness is established, it may be taken to the next level where personnel gather to get hands-on with the equipment to see what is interchangeable.
For example, a rescue company may have older HRTs retrofitted with the hydraulic fittings for the newer generation of equipment. The second step would be to conduct a training exercise that involved the respective units working together with the equipment to make sure everyone is proficient in using each other’s gear. The third step is to stay consistent with the resources available to the respective companies and continuously revisit the cycle.
Ultimately, to find success with company interoperability, there are important issues that departments need to focus on, including the following:
- Maintain interoperable communication, as it is vital to the success of every operation.
- Ensure that all personnel may use all equipment properly and efficiently.
- Perform continuous training and reevaluation of interoperability, as it is the foundation to successful interagency operations.
Robert Policht is a member of the Passaic (NJ) Fire Department assigned to Engine Company 2. He started his career as a volunteer where he served as captain and training officer for the Allendale (NJ) Fire Department. Policht has multiple certifications including firefighter II, fire officer II, swift water tech, and emergency medical technician. He is a member of the International Association of Arson Investigators and the International Association of Fire Service Instructors. Policht has a master’s degree in emergency management and homeland security from Arizona State University. He is a founder and contributor of Flow and Vent, a site dedicated to fire and rescue training.