Interoperable Communications

An Introduction to the Need for Interoperable Communications in Schools

By Sen. Steve King and the School Emergency Communications Task Force

SB11-173, Interoperable Communications in Schools, is designed to help save lives, minimize personal injury, reduce property damage, and provide an invisible blanket of security over all our schools.

The communications component of incident response and management, particularly when that response and management crosses disciplines and jurisdictions, is critical enough to warrant dedicated legislation to encourage, promote, and ensure its actual and overt planning, exercising, equipping, and implementation.

Lack of interoperable communications has led to crisis response failure time and time again. Examples include Columbine, 9/11, Katrina, and major tragic incidents around the world. Responders were unable to communicate with one another during the crisis. The main reason was that communications devices were unable to talk to one another.

New planning, training, technology, and procedures can cure this problem — with very careful leadership and a clear understanding of what true interoperable communications really is.

Interoperability is often anecdotally interpreted to mean, “Everybody can talk to everybody else.”

In reality, that is the last thing needed on an incident. The true definition for interoperability should be, “Those who have a need to communicate with others can do so when needed within the established communications plan.”

Those are truly two different things. Incident and communications discipline truly break down when every police officer can communicate with every public works representative who can communicate with every firefighter who can communicate with every school representative who can communicate with every EMS worker. Chaos.

Within the Incident Command System, whether at its simplest (say, a single fire engine working a car fire) or its most complex (a major wildland fire like the Fourmile Fire or immense and cascading widespread disaster such as Japan is currently experiencing), there are organizational protocols that provide for logical, ordered, and disciplined flow of communications. These help ensure that everybody with a role on an incident knows to whom they should communicate for any given purpose. Rather than imposing constraints, these protocols empower everyone on an incident to be able to communicate rapidly, efficiently, and directly to the appropriate person. Should exigent circumstances so dictate, the protocols of the Incident Command System also provide a direct path for an individual to communicate directly to the right person, even outside their organizational line of communications.

The nation’s first concerted effort to address interoperable communications, albeit without use of the term “interoperability,” came in the early 1970s in the aftermath of the tragic Laguna Fire in Southern California. In analysis of that incident and others, several deficiencies were identified in response and management of major, multi-agency incidents. Of the identified deficiencies, communications was identified as that in most need of improvement. Project FIRESCOPE was born out of this recognition of a dire need for improvement in interagency communications, command, and control.

Still, some 40 years later, whenever an after-action report is conducted on an emergency incident, communications is typically identified as one of the larger deficiencies. Many strides have been made since 1970, and considerable attention and funding have been directed toward improving interoperable communications since 9/11. However, communications and interoperability are still challenges, and initiatives such as SAFECOM and the National Emergency Communications Plan (NECP) have focused on putting sufficient emphasis on the critical need for interoperable communications. Communications is such an absolutely critical component of incident management that it takes a high degree of focus, planning, interagency agreements and exercises to become successful.

One of the game-changing lessons learned in 9/11 was that our traditional view of first responders as being law enforcement, fire service, and emergency medical services fell short.

Depending on the nature of the emergency, “first responders” include public works, schools, public health, geographic information systems staff and others. School personnel have been formally included in that community through Colorado’s SB08-181 bringing them into the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and Incident Command System (ICS). Having recognized and identified school personnel as integral to the incident management system and process, it is now appropriate to close that loop by providing them the tools and cooperative response framework to work with and communicate with their traditional first responder public safety partners.

“You fight like you train” is a tried and true axiom. Pulling out plans, adopting special protocols, and trying to make them work for the irregularly occurring major incident when not used on a daily basis is the foundation for failure. Protocols and practices that are sound for major interagency events are also sound for day-to-day activities, and their routine use makes them second nature and that to which everyone will revert when a major incident occurs. When lives are in jeopardy is not the time for everyone to try to remember the rules of engagement.

The efficacy of having planned, trained, and coordinated communicators and communications between school personnel and public safety staff has been demonstrated repeatedly. The Pueblo County School District has shown this through planning and exercises with the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office and other responders, and demonstrations and exercises in other Colorado school districts and in other states have validated the premise as well.

Having trained and equipped responders inside the school who know the layout, student locations, means of ingress and egress, and the location (and access) to the specific point of the emergency provide invaluable eyes and ears and intelligence to responding public safety that will save precious minutes and seconds and will save lives.


This paper was presented to the House Education Committee on April 18, 2011, in support of SB11-173, Interoperable Communications in Schools. It was published by the Department of Homeland Security Lessons Learned Information Sharing Network ( August, 2011. Our thanks to Gary Oldham, our senior advisor on interoperability, for his work as primary drafter of this document.