Email this Article Email   

CHIPS Articles: Interoperability: not a technology problem

Interoperability: not a technology problem
Five critical elements to achieve an interoperability solution
By Robert Stachura, Installation Program Director, Naval Station Great Lakes - April-June 2018
It is a sunny Tuesday morning, no different than any other summer workday as employees at Recruit Processing Command settle into their daily routines. Except today is different. Gun shots ring out through the corridors and echo down the large stairwells. Dozens of 911 calls are made from inside the building that houses over 400 military and civilian personnel and government contractors. Two separate dispatch centers are alerted, Naval Station Great Lakes and the city of North Chicago, contacted via landline and cell phone, respectively. Each following procedures, they dispatch teams from both Naval Security Forces (NSF) and the North Chicago Police Department (NCPD). Additionally, Lake County Sherriff’s Office and Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) are alerted by phone by Naval Station Great Lakes dispatch.

Within minutes, more than 30 officers are present, entering from opposite entrances in teams at the east and west end of the 240,000 square-foot four-story building. East Team enters at the second deck, while the West Team entrance is on ground floor with a contractor-staffed guard post. All the collective training of the security forces comes to bear as the first victims come into view, “This guy has to be neutralized quickly,” is their shared thought. Teams rush in from both entrances, the officers’ adrenaline is surging hearing gunshots from upstairs and with eyes tearing by the acrid smoke of gunpowder still hanging in the stairwell. The shooter is spotted and quickly engaged, or so it is thought. A brief shootout ensues and bullets fly in both directions.

Chaos gives way to the realization that it is not the shooter that was taken down, but a plainclothes officer with weapon drawn. Although everyone carried a portable radio, the teams entering at opposite ends of the building never established communications with each other beforehand to coordinate their actions.

Although the scenario is fictitious, a “blue-on-blue” occurrence is a real possibility for public safety officers. Interoperable communications and operating procedures among multiple agency first responders to reduce the likelihood of blue-on-blue engagements is a critical priority. Radio technology used by public safety officers is only a part of the “Interoperability Continuum,” shown in Figure 1, which was developed by the Department of Homeland Security to promote first responder collaboration. Governance, procedures, training and usage are also prerequisites for true interagency coordination.

The ability for first responders from differing public safety agencies to communicate is recognized as important enough that nearly $1 billion was granted pursuant to the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 and the Call Home Act of 2006. The laws were enacted to assist public safety agencies in acquisition, deployment and training to enhance interoperable communications of voice, data and/or video signals, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Release on Improving Public Safety Communications Nationwide of Nov. 25, 2008.

The Public Safety Interoperability Communications (PSIC) Grant Program was established and with matching state contributions, more than $1 billion has been spent to that end. To qualify, recipients have to ensure funds are aligned with their respective Statewide Communications Interoperability Plan (SCIP). This single infusion represents the largest ever in federal funding provided for state, territory and local agencies to implement interoperable communications solutions for public safety. For Illinois, the grant totaled $36 million. In contrast, a similar fiscal injection was not provided for federal public safety agencies such as those on military installations around the world.

Lay of the Land

The fictitious active shooter scenario described above takes place at Naval Station Great Lakes, a federal Department of Defense installation 30 miles north of Chicago. With over 20,000 military and DoD civilians working on board, there is a highly effective security force to serve and protect the base on a daily basis. In the event of a major incident, outside agencies would support Great Lakes’ security forces. First responder communications are provided by an Enterprise Land Mobile Radio (ELMR) network purchased from Motorola. It is a trunked Project 25 (P25) system that efficiently uses allocated channels on a network with a range defined by the laws of physics, weather and wave propagation, i.e., limited coverage to the area on and surrounding the Naval Station.

The State of Illinois, in which Naval Station Great Lakes entirely resides, also has a P25 trunked public safety network provided by Motorola called STARCOM21. It is the official public safety network delivered by Illinois through a public-private partnership created with Motorola. The current $114 million-contract runs for 10 years.

The STARCOM21 system operates in the 700-800 MHz range and is entirely independent of and working in a different spectrum than the Navy’s ELMR system. Public safety radios of the Navy, and all other surrounding law enforcement agencies, cannot communicate directly without pre-installed and programmed equipment (technology), active intervention by patching (usage), and pre-arranged coordinated standard operating procedures (SOPs).

As illustrated by the Interoperability Continuum, developed by the Department of Homeland Security SAFECOM program, there are five critical elements to achieve an interoperability solution: governance, standard operating procedures, technology, training and exercises, and usage. Technology is a critical tool for interoperability, but it is certainly not the sole driver of the solution.

“Successful implementation of data and voice communications technology is supported by strong governance and is highly dependent on effective collaboration and training among participating agencies and jurisdictions,” according to guidance developed by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Emergency Communications (OEC): Interoperability Continuum: A Tool for Improving Emergency Response Communications and Interoperability, issued in August 2015.

The Interoperability Continuum highlights the keys to successful collaboration among agencies, of which technology is only a part. Governance will provide the framework in which all stakeholders can participate and collaborate in; clear and effective SOPs will enable coordination across disciplines and jurisdictions; and training and exercises allow forces to practice communications interoperability and confirms that everything works together as planned in the event of a real emergency. The Continuum also highlights usage, which refers to how often technologies are used and the interplay of the other four elements of interoperability.

What is Interoperability? Why is it Important?

Per the Oxford English Dictionary, interoperable is defined as able to operate in conjunction. More appropriately, the Federal Communications Commission’s definition is: “an essential communication link within public safety and public service wireless communications systems which permits units from two or more different entities to interact with one another and to exchange information according to a prescribed method in order to achieve predictable results.”

The critical ability of public safety agencies to operate together and exchange information is highlighted often with public safety incidents and emergencies that are more serious than a municipality or local force can combat. For example, on Sept. 16, 2013, a gunman opened fire at the Washington Navy Yard, killing 12 people and injuring three others. Six Naval Security Forces personnel were on duty during the Navy Yard incident, yet 117 law enforcement officers from eight different agencies entered the building in which the shooter was active. At one point, over 1,000 radios were on the same channel used by responding officers, according to the After Action Report Washington Navy Yard September 16, 2013, in an Internal Review of the Metropolitan Police Department, Washington, D.C., July 2014. But there were many instances where officers were on different radio channels. Because of heavy radio traffic, there were several instances when the commander coordinating the contact teams was unable to transmit vital information to the officers within the building. The Navy Yard incident is just one example where response to public emergencies could be improved by implementing the principles of the Interoperability Continuum.

Successes at Naval Station Great Lakes

In winter 2016-2017, Naval Station Great Lakes reached out to local public safety agencies to forge a path and leverage the statewide public safety network. With the robust STARCOM21 network deployed throughout Illinois and more than 270 radio tower sites across the state, it is the most capable communications platform Great Lakes might use to enhance its interoperability continuum. Base representatives and local public safety agencies attended the Interoperability Communications Council of Lake County (ICCLC), the communications governance body for Lake County, to develop and test a concept of operations (CONOPS). The CONOPS allowed Great Lakes NSF and dispatch personnel to talk directly with other outside dispatch and law enforcement agencies.

Using existing technology and inventory, radios were reprogrammed and gateways created that allowed both Great Lakes and Lake County dispatch personnel to patch directly into each other’s communications networks. The theory was sound and the proof of concept tested “satisfactory.”

Success led to the next step: apply to planned real-world events where communications interoperability could be improved between the Naval Station and outside supporting agencies. Summer 2017 provided the perfect opportunity with two simultaneous, events where multi-agency cooperation could be showcased — the annual Fourth of July Festival held at the Naval Station and the DoD Warrior Games 2017 (WG17), hosted by the Navy in Chicago. Both were high profile events and required interagency communications interoperability.

With a citywide coverage requirement for Naval Security Forces, STARCOM21 was the only solution for WG17 without having to build a new Navy communications network at substantial cost. Using state cached STARCOM21 radios and tremendous technical support from Lake County Sherriff’s Office, a citywide command and control/information network was established that had a gateway connection into the Navy ELMR communications network. Navy leadership, command and control, and public safety agencies now had the technology piece fixed, and the world-class DoD Warrior Games 2017 had a citywide secure communications network.

The Great Lakes Fourth of July Festival had different requirements — communications interoperability with the local law enforcement agency directly outside the fence line — the North Chicago Police Department and Lake County Sherriff’s Office. Operating in a different spectrum, the technology piece to the interoperability continuum had to be resolved with Incident Commanders Radio Interface (ICRI) boxes. It is a simple device that takes a portable radio from each network and retransmits on selected channels to each other’s network. This allowed Navy Security Forces and local law enforcement to directly communicate to each other and a shared dispatch center.

Both communications interoperability events went off with outstanding results, not just because of the technology, but also because of the governance body of the ICCLC, the SOPs agreed upon between agencies, and the exercise of the proof of concept and actual usage. Although at a rudimentary level within the interoperability continuum, the results were noteworthy. For the first time, Naval Station Great Lakes could now readily collaborate and communicate real-time with municipal public safety agencies in a tactical environment.

An active shooter exercise was the next significant step in the proof of concept. In October 2017, Naval Station Great Lakes hosted an exercise with five agencies coordinating actions ? Naval Security Forces, Navy Fire and Emergency Services, NCIS, NCPD, and the Lake County Sheriff’s Office. With the Incident Command Post established and participating agencies following FEMA’s National Incident Management System (NIMS) doctrine, Naval Station Great Lakes had the basic tools and procedures to communicate effectively and coordinate actions among several agencies. There were lessons to be learned as this was the first time the Continuum was used in an exercise of this nature, but the concepts, procedures and technology solutions were proven sound and worthy of pursuing further.

Way Ahead

The successes Great Lakes achieved highlight the usefulness of the Interoperability Continuum. The technological piece is not the only driver, but it is an important one. Naval Station Great Lakes was able to leverage the State of Illinois STARCOM21 system using collaborative relationships to validate and prove the concepts that will be relied upon in the event of a future incident. Public safety is a fundamental mission for federal, county and municipal agencies surrounding the Great Lakes installation. Like most military installations, Great Lakes must rely on a “cooperative security” mindset to fully protect people and continue mission operations. As such, investments in communications interoperability are prudent and sensible. Usage of the STARCOM21 network requires operating agreements with associated funding and use of compatible equipment. Dedicated STARCOM21 channels for the Naval Station to be on the state network that is monitored 24/7/365 would enable a faster and more effective response to incidents like the Navy Yard shooting.

Although successes were achieved, they were planned, coordinated events with prepositioned technology and procedures established. An unforeseen tragedy, like the Navy Yard shooting in 2012, demonstrates that permanent technology solutions must be in place and agreements made prior to an emergency. Most of the communications technology is already installed, millions of dollars have been invested and the network is built. It’s the last mile investment that will complete the circuit and help move public safety departments from disparate organizations to interoperable agencies that can focus on their common mission.

Retired Navy Cmdr. Robert Stachura enlisted in the Navy in 1985 and retired in 2015 as an Information Professional Officer. He has a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Kansas and earned Master’s degrees from the Naval War College, Keller Graduate School of Management and the Eisenhower School. Ship and shore assignments include USS Kentucky, earning his gold dolphins; Nuclear Power Training Unit Ballston Spa; BUPERS; Carrier Strike Group SEVEN; Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station Pacific; Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station Far East; and U.S. Africa Command. He is now the Installation Program Director for IT for Naval Station Great Lakes.

Figure 1. Interoperability Continuum
Figure 1. Interoperability Continuum
Related CHIPS Articles
Related DON CIO News
Related DON CIO Policy

CHIPS is an official U.S. Navy website sponsored by the Department of the Navy (DON) Chief Information Officer, the Department of Defense Enterprise Software Initiative (ESI) and the DON's ESI Software Product Manager Team at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific.

Online ISSN 2154-1779; Print ISSN 1047-9988
Hyperlink Disclaimer