Public safety inter agency communications

Most public safety agencies (fire, law enforcement, and EMS) in the U.S. and Canada do fairly well in using their communication tools, e.g., land mobile radios and wireless devices, for the day-to-day emergency incidents to which they respond. Those same entities, however, can experience real communications challenges when faced with a large-scale or complex emergency event that requires the response of additional resources from multiple agencies.

Those challenges are exacerbated when the leaders of those additional resources—from mutual aid departments, other departments of local government, and state or provincial governments—must come together to form an effective and efficient incident management team. Information sharing is not a natural for everyone, as we all have our specific culture including how and with who we share information. What is a strength in normal operating conditions can impede mutual aid efforts in certain situations.

The purpose of this e-Book is to provide public safety agency leaders with knowledge and approaches to initiate dialogue with the leaders of other departments, agencies, and organizations that they will need in the future. We address four perspectives in this e-Book:

1 – Communication challenges posed by large-scale or complex emergency events: We’ll link the challenges to past experiences to illustrate.

2 – “Hard” Communications: we’ll look at how agencies can develop systems that maximize their ‘bang for the buck’

3 – “Soft” communications: we’ll see the role of these skills and how individuals and departments can improve them. Because in the end, it’s people coming together to fix problems in an event.

4 – Resource management: Learning what you need (needs assessment), learning what you have (resource cataloguing), and learning what you “really have” (developing real-time resource availabilities). An often overlooked “piece” in communications during large-scale or complex events.

We hope that agencies reading this e-Book can address those 4 perspectives and result in better pre-planning, improvement of standard operating guidelines, better integration of communication tools and technology, and better training.


To truly understand the consequences of the lack of communications, it is important to understand the role of communications in complex situations. Communications is information transfer and involves the technology associated with the representation, transfer, interpretation, and processing of data among persons, places, and machines. It includes transmission, emission, or reception of signs, signals, writing, images, and sounds or intelligence of any nature by wire, radio, optical, or other electromagnetic systems [1].

The primary means of communication for public safety agencies has historically been land mobile radio systems (LMRS). The capabilities needed vary with the severity and scope of the event. In a “normal” daily event, such as a freeway accident, first responders may only need to communicate within their organization or immediately adjacent jurisdictions.

usar communications

However, in a catastrophic event, effective interoperable communications among responders is vastly more complicated and needs are not only for interoperable radios but also for voice and data networks due to the scale and nature of the work to perform.

Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 hurricane that devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast region in 2005, has frequently been cited for its adverse impact on both emergency incident and emergency management communications, because the response involved agencies from the federal government—civilian and military—and from various state and local governments who arrived to provide help under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) among states [2]. Additionally, given the magnitude of Hurricane Harvey and Irma, these events will certainly help us to better understand mutual aid communications and what needs to be improved in the future.

Hurricane Irma Statistics

• Category 5 – Strongest hurricane observed in the Atlantic since Wilma in 2005
• Estimated property damage: $42.5-$65 billion [3]
• 7,000,000 people received the order to evacuate Florida [4].

However, without their normal infrastructure, the first responders were unable to coordinate search and rescue operations efficiently and effectively without communications to guide them to the locations requesting assistance. Supplies and assistance from other states could not be delivered in a timely manner due to lack of communications. The communications failures caused additional undue death and destruction in the affected areas.

Lack of interoperability communications equipment presented another problem that numerous agencies are attempting to solve. According to the 2006 report from the USAWC Strategy Research Project, the solutions will require enforcement of common standards as well as funding to enable these organizations to acquire compatible communications equipment [5]. This is doable to a certain extent, as it will never be possible to have the National Guard, State Emergency Management, and the various local public safety organizations from the Counties & Cities work 100% on compatible equipment.

Base Camp Connect empowers emergency managers by proposing communications go-kit that are simple to use, portable, configurable, and that doesn’t require training to operate them.


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