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Improving First Responders' Interagency Communications

Improving First Responders' Interagency Communications

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By David E. Hubler
Contributor, EDM Digest

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When experts were canvassed about how public safety communications systems performed during the 9/11 terrorist attack, they told Homeland Security New Wire that “Interoperability between public safety agencies was inadequate, and in many cases non-existent.”

Chris Russo, a veteran firefighter and 9/11 first responder, put it bluntly: “We were severely hampered by not being able to communicate with each other, as radio systems did not allow for inter-agency communications.”

One analysis published in The New York Times was headlined, “Fatal Confusion: A Troubled Emergency Response; 9/11 Exposed Deadly Flaws in Rescue Plan.” A summary of the article on Disaster STS Network highlighted numerous critical flaws. They included:

  • Police and fire departments barely spoke to coordinate strategy or share intelligence.
  • Firefighters’ radio system failed, just as it had done eight years earlier in the World Trade Center bombing.
  • Most firefighters inside the North Tower did not know that the South Tower had crumbled.
  • To this day, the NYFD cannot say how many firefighters were sent into the towers and where they died.

GlobalFlyte, a technology company founded in 2015, has developed a solution to these failures called multi-modal communications (MMC). The solution is based on technology developed by the U.S. Air Force Research Lab to reduce the chaos and increase the clarity of communications in Air Force Operations Centers.

As GlobalFlyte CEO Roger Mann explained: “We recognized early on that first responders, disaster recovery responders, they all have an extremely challenging environment to operate in with so many different sources of information flooding in on them and yet have to sort out and take decisive and correct action to save lives and protect property.”

Communication Boundaries Create Interagency Challenges

Mann refers to these communication challenges as “boundaries,” such as between local fire and police departments, FEMA and the National Guard, and among responders from different jurisdictions. “For instance, if you’re on a military radio, how do you communicate with someone on a civilian radio?” he asked rhetorically.

These boundaries hamper response times especially when time is of the essence, for example when coordinating a rapid response to a spreading forest fire. “You’re going to have to make sure the responders themselves are safe, but you’re also going to have to deal with the containment and the mitigation,” Mann explained.

GlobalFlyte’s MMC permits various first responder departments and rescue organizations to communicate with each other on an integrated platform using the technology developed by the Air Force along with commercial mapping, imaging and smartphone applications.

The MMC separates the radio channels on first responders’ mobile devices. Channels not relevant to the immediate task at hand can be muted so responders can concentrate on the most relevant audio information they need. The data is transmitted onto mobile display units managed by the incident command controller. The “turn by turn” navigation also allows responders to view the incident as it unfolds.

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MMC is compatible with all radios and Mobile Display Terminals (MDTs), eliminating the need to upgrade communications infrastructure or radio gear.

The result, company officials say, is a 70% increase in listeners’ comprehension. And all communications are automatically stamped by date and time to create an accurate historic record of the event.

School Districts Can Upload Active Shooter Plans to Establish a Coordinated Response

A critical GlobalFlyte innovation allows subscribing school districts to upload their active shooter plans into the system. That creates a coordinated response to an actual shooting incident among local and district school officials and police and emergency responders, while also reducing the chances of a disjointed response as has occurred in recent incidents.

GlobalFlyte officials say a moderately priced two-year lease will make the technology also available to small and midsize jurisdictions.

As civilian and military entities continue to devise new critical technology, we may one day look back on communications incompatibility in the same light as we now regard the rapidly disappearing landline telephone. We will never fully eliminate disasters, natural or man-made, but responding to them and mitigating their effects will be greatly improved.

David Hubler David E. Hubler brings a variety of government, journalism and teaching experience to his position as a Quality Assurance Editor at APUS. David’s professional background includes serving as a senior editor at CIA and the Voice of America. He has also been a managing editor for several business-to-business and business-to-government publishing companies. David has taught high school English in Connecticut and at Northern Virginia Community College. He has a master’s degree for Teachers of English from the University of New Hampshire and a B.A. in English from New York University. In March 2017, Rowman & Littlefield published the paperback edition of David’s latest book, "The Nats and the Grays, How Baseball in the Nation's Capital Survived WWII and Changed the Game Forever."