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Using ICS for Interoperability

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Managed Interoperability: by Gordon Vanauken

Originally Published in our August, 2006 issue.

How many times have you been at an emergency scene where you couldn’t talk to a person a few blocks away? In the Spring of 2004, I was an evaluator at a HAZMAT drill.  The local police were getting support from the State Highway Patrol.  After a period of two years, and several million dollars, there was a “state-wide” radio system in place to make sure “everyone could talk to everyone.” The local police still could not talk to the Highway Patrol because the radio they had was in a vehicle that was contaminated, and the police chief didn’t want to go to the command post.


This drill showed that technology isn’t the answer to interoperability.  The Department of Homeland Security is even now trying to get people to understand there is a “continuum of interoperability” that includes operations and exercises beyond the technology.  The Incident Command System (ICS) has been at the center of many of these activities.  ICS is specifically designed to be flexible and expandable with ICS being integrated into the daily response routine for all public safety agencies.


One of the major ideas that ICS teaches is “span of control.” The ICS span of control is recommended to be 3 to 7 units or people, with 5 being optimal.  Knowing this, at most incident scenes the majority of responding and on-scene units are all assigned to the same channel, even though the Incident Commander has established ICS to efficiently manage the incident.

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Admittedly, most public safety radio infrastructures can handle more then the normal ICS span of control and often has to because of lack of resources.  How many times has a channel that is identified as a “mutual aid” or “interoperability” channel been made unusable due to it becoming overused when everyone tries to talk on it, or been underused because information and policies covering their use were not developed or disseminated? ICS has a solution to this called the “communications plan.”


The communications plan takes the available communications resources and allocates them to the ICS structure.  It is often overlooked that frequencies, channels, and radios are a limited resource.  Often an incident is well underway before this is carefully evaluated.  Structuring a communication plan allows for better control and better flow of information. 


A communications plan needs to address three things to work well:  requirements of the incident, the resource limitations, and operational requirements.  Most of this information is found in the Incident Action Plan (IAP) which is the road map of an incident in ICS.  The communications plan also becomes a part of the IAP, so the two should be developed together.  This article will look at this planning from two perspectives; first, on a large ongoing incident, and second, for pre-planned events, such as daily mutual aid operations.


On an on-going incident, the incident commander develops the objectives to be accomplished.  These objectives require a structure and a basic set of tasks.  These will help guide the beginning of the communications plan.  Each area of activity will need some form of communication.  From the IAP, a list of needs will be established and available resources identified.

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An inventory of available frequencies/channels and radio infrastructure (i.e., repeaters, networks) is a good place to start.  Always look at every resource.  Often the assets of other organizations such as bus companies and public works are overlooked.  If bulldozers from public works are working a wild land fire, they can use their own radio equipment and resources.

This actually takes us into the operational requirements.  As we look at the resources that respond to an incident, examine the communications assets they have in place.  If a public works resource is assigned, they can use their own radios, and talk to an “agency representative” at the command post.


At this point, the Commander can assign like resources with like communications equipment to work together.  As an example, take a fire scene with three departments from a nearby county that has a UHF radio system, and you have a VHF high band system.  Take those three departments and use them together as a division and their supervisor can co-locate at the command post or send an agency representative there.


A good communications plan will mirror the ICS structure.  Not everyone needs to be on the command channel; only the section chiefs or supervisors of the operational areas.  The concept of “everyone being able to talk to everyone” is neither efficient nor practical.  Each operational area should have a channel to use if possible.  What happens when there are too many needs, and not enough channels?

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Look carefully at simplex channels.  Multiple users can use these if there is enough distance between them.  Also, look at the talk-around features of repeater channels.  Using a talk-around channel will allow a group to communicate among themselves, without tying up a repeater.  Again, knowing what resources are at hand makes this task easier.

Once the communications plan has been completed, and all of the incident needs have been met with the available resources, information must be disseminated to the resources that will use it.  First, the plan needs to be approved by the commander.  Once approved, everyone involved with the incident should get a copy.  This will allow people to know who is using what frequencies or channels for the incident, and even talk to other groups as needed in some cases. 


Another thing that has been found to be useful is to broadcast on the appropriate channels the use of that channel - to remind people of the use of the channel.  It even helps in those cases where the channel number in various radios is not the same.  Occasionally re-broadcasting the channel use also reminds users what channel they are on, and that their radio is still working.

All of this is great as we spend time planning a communications plan for a long-term incident, and have a whole operational period to develop the plan for the next period.  How do we make this work on a daily basis? Pre-planned communications plans!


Pre-planned communication plans are developed for use on an incident for the first 30 to 90 minutes.  This is similar to the use of a Department of Transportation (DOT) Orange Book for HAZMAT incidents.  They will give you enough information to get started, but you should bring in extra help soon.  Pre-planned communications plans use much the same process. 


First list the needs, and then the resources.  In pre-planning this is a little vaguer than a real incident.  Use a few normal incident types that happen regularly or agency-type responses such as law enforcement or fire incidents to make it practical.  Assign a command channel, an adequate number of tactical channels, and don’t forget a staging channel.  A staging channel lets everyone know on what channel to get directions or to check in on while they are en route.  This takes the responding traffic off the operations channels.

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Remember to include any other agencies that may respond to an incident.  Include groups like a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), or volunteer agencies like Salvation Army or Red Cross in your plans if appropriate.  Primary frequencies may even be identified for groups like Amateur Radio, Citizen Band Radio, or Family Radio Service (FRS) systems.

As with any communication plan, when it is done, notify everyone involved.  Give copies of the plan to all potential responders.  The plan must be used daily and updated on a regular basis.  No plan or policy will work if it is not practiced.


In the end, interoperability needs to be looked at from the perspective of what the objectives are.  The primary objective of interoperability is to share information.  Information is critical to our jobs, and often the lives of responders and citizens.  Whatever processes and equipment works for you is good, but don’t be tied to a cookie cutter answer.  Make use of technology, but never forget that that technology must SUPPORT your operations, not dictate them.


Gordon Vanauken, a telecommunications specialist in L.  Robert Kimball & Associates’ State College office, has an extensive background in public safety that contributes to his expertise in 9-1-1 project management, operations, and training.  Gordon is a certified Emergency Number Professional (ENP), as well as a Telecommunications Instructor for APCO.

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