Flexible (all-hazards) tool sent directly to smaller communities
Note: The following report was written about the Incident Commanders’ Radio Interface in 2007.
For Public Safety officials who sleep peacefully at night, content with the ability of their community’s emergency communications to handle the unexpected – especially for providing inter-agency radio interoperability for mutual aid – recent events in Apex, North Carolina may shake their confidence.
A toxic cloud released from an industrial facility forms over the town and within minutes of initial response forces the emergency operations center and 911-dispatch to be abandoned. Over the next several hours the Fire Chief will evacuate thousands of residents while battling the chemical fire. Added to his responsibility: maintaining command and inter-agency communications with hundreds of mutual aid responders using with incompatible radio systems.
That’s the scenario Fire Chief and Emergency Management Coordinator Mark Haraway faced in Apex, a town of 42,000 located near Raleigh, when a mix of chemicals stored at the EQ waste handling facility began reacting. Beginning as a toxic chemical cloud that Thursday evening October 5th, the plume quickly forced closure of the town’s police department, telecommunications center, and the fire station housing their emergency operations center. The chemical facility then escalated into a series of explosions and fires, requiring 17,000 people to be evacuated throughout the night.
Over 300 firefighters and other mutual aid responders poured in from six neighboring counties, yet that created another problem: incompatible 800 MHz, analog and other radio systems. Displaced from the EOC, Chief Haraway would run back-up communications from a USAR command vehicle, relying on a portable, battery-powered device to provide inter-agency interoperability. If there was a silver lining, it was timing. Just one month earlier Apex had received the shoe-box size gateway, the Incident Commanders’ Radio InterfaceTM (referred to by its acronym, the ICRI) for free, enabling them now to coordinate evacuations, maintain exclusion zones and control points, and fight a chemical fire that took three and half days to put down.
Between 2006 and 2008, Apex and 42 other communities had been awarded the ICRITM through the now defunct “Commercial Equipment Direct Assistance Program” (CEDAP). Unlike a monetary grant, the innovative program administered by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Grants and Training, sent select equipment directly to smaller communities that were challenged to fund and procure technology for homeland security.
CEDAP helped equip agencies located outside urban areas so they could better respond to threats to transportation infrastructure, water supplies, power grids, and targets spread out over wide areas like pipelines. The reality, pointed out in Apex, is that smaller communities need a quick and surefire tool for interoperability right in their own backyard. And it doesn’t take a large scale event, like a chemical fire, to create a situation of incompatible radios.
The Apex landscape
Apex Fire and Emergency Management agencies began participating in Wake County’s 800 MHz system three years ago, yet that still left plenty of ‘dead’ areas of poor RF signal propagation. As Chief Haraway explained, using a mobile repeater to get the signal up to the county line didn’t end the problem; it started again on the other side with neighboring agencies that weren’t on the 800 system. “A patch was set up between the two county dispatch agencies, but the digital to analog connection was basically unintelligible,” said Haraway. That was motivation enough to apply for the ICRI through CEDAP. “We were looking for interoperability in the field so that no matter where we went or whether we were responding with fire or USAR, we’d have the equipment to tie into the communications anywhere in the state.”
The Apex incident also points to an Achilles heel of interoperability– the vulnerability of equipment permanently affixed and tied to an infrastructure. Equipment anchored in an EOC that can’t be moved and operated out of harms way during a hurricane, flood, or in the path of a chemical cloud, is likely to be rendered useless. Haraway’s team was able to set up the ICRI, packaged in its protective case, inside their USAR vehicle.
The ICRI, which weighs about four lbs. and measures just 10” x 7” x 3”, can be operated from a fixed location, but is just as easily disconnected, packed up, and transferred to an active duty vehicle. “It sits installed in our EOC and we test it weekly with other departments and monthly with all departments, so it’s plugged in and constantly in use,” said Mylod, of the 1st Battalion EOC. “If a call came in, I’d go down to the firehouse, pull two (connecting) cables, throw them in the box and take it out to the field, where it’s designed to be used.”
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