Emergency systems need a common language

Technology no longer the problem, users say

Police and other emergency response departments in the national capital region of Virginia, Maryland and Washington have standardized on common 800-MHz communications systems.

What remains to be done in establishing interoperable systems is the unglamorous job of getting everyone on the same page.

'The technical piece for the most part has been repaired since 9/11,' said Capt. Eddie Reyes of the Alexandria, Va., Police Department. 'Now we have to focus on the human piece of interoperability.'

Reyes, who chairs the Virginia State Interoperability Executive Committee, described the state's progress toward interoperable communications last month at the GovSec conference in Washington.

Communication across departments and jurisdictions has long been a headache for local, state and federal first responders.

Every disaster'from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to Hurricane Katrina'highlights the need to solve the problem.

Many of the problems could be solved with existing technology, Reyes said, but few first responders know anything of their communications systems beyond 'push to talk.'

'Communications is the most critical component in any public safety operation, but it receives the least attention in education and standards,' he said.

One of the problems is what Reyes called a 'plethora of patois''cops don't speak the same language, even when they're on the same frequency. For instance, in the 10-signals used in Montgomery County, Md., 10-50 means 'officer down.' But to the Maryland State Police it means a traffic accident.

'What's missing now is the training, the standards and a common language protocol,' Reyes said.

Some standards are in place. The Federal Communications Commission has set aside national mutual-aid channels on all three of the major public safety radio bands, UHF, VHF and the 800-MHz band.

'Most agencies have not taken the time to preprogram those frequencies into their radios, because they don't know about them,' Reyes said. 'It would solve a huge part of the interoperability problem if we could do that.'

For departments and agencies that need new communications equipment, money is becoming scarcer.

The Virginia Commonwealth Interoperability Coordination Office oversees $5.6 million in grants for local programs. But federal money may be drying up.

The Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing program had $97 million for interoperability programs for fiscal 2005, said intergovernmental and community liaison officer Corey Ray.

This year it has $10 million in total for all types of programs.

'The president's proposed budget for 2007 has zero funds for interoperable communications,' Ray said, although he expects that will change by the time the budget is completed.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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