Radio Interoperability Best Practices Working Group

I recently participated in a conference for a new working group that is under the NPSTC interoperability committee; its theme is “radio interoperability best practices.”

The group was formed in response to several, recent high-profile incidents that include a forest fire and an active-shooter, that may have been mitigated by improved communications. This group will eventually finalize a report on best practices for these types of events that will be submitted for approval by NPSTC.

Although this meeting was simply an introduction to the group, several important ideas were shared, which I will summarize here:

1) The need for interoperability can be divided by situation and equipment:

Situations that require interoperability:

  • Daily activities/operations require interoperability between police & fire within a single municipality
  • Fire departments from multiple jurisdictions may respond to a fire at a house or building
  • When a large scale incident occurs, many agencies may respond

Ways to establish interoperability, include:

  • Personnel bringing their own radio to the incident with interoperability frequencies pre-programmed
  • Radio re-programming at the incident. This may be a last resort, because a technician may not be available to program the radios.
  • Using cache radios

2) Suggestions for best practices

–  Radio Programming: Setup every radio with the same channel names and channel order. This approach would allow responders to quickly locate any channel on a new radio, or even allow agencies to easily verify they are on a common channel.  A meeting participant gave the following example: Two law enforcement agencies had programmed their radios with the same channel name for different RF frequencies.  As a result, although it appeared that they were on the same channel, they could not communicate.

Ensure the correct PL/sub-tones are programmed into the radio.

Training: When a radio is loaned to a responder, take time to explain/learn how to use it. Agencies should train their personnel on how to use their own radio. This includes training for new personnel and ongoing training to seasoned personnel, to prevent loss of skills and knowledge.

A meeting participant gave the following example: Subscribers may believe that only 16 channels are programmed into their radio, because only 16 channels can be accessed at a time. The subscriber may be unaware that those channels are only in one zone, and there are multiple zones programmed into the radio.

Equipment Check:  Verify equipment is in good, working condition on a regular basis; not just prior to use. Pay particular attention to the condition of the antennas and batteries.

Co-ordination: At an incident, announce which radio channel will be used for interoperability.

A particularly important theme at this first meeting was the limitations of “best practices.” Not all best practices can be immediately implemented at the incident, and some cannot be implemented due to “political reasons.” These ideas are simply guidelines/suggestions to work towards, rather than standards or policies that must be implemented.

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