Public Safety Communications & Training

The Quest for Interoperability

15 July 2015

Public safety, in most western nations, is a multi-agency challenge. Police, fire, paramedic, specialty rescue as well as specialty hazard units exist in various configurations at the municipal, provincial or state, and federal levels.

Each of these agencies has their own organizational structures, their own procedures, their own budgets, and their own equipment and training systems. Establishing effective day-to-day operations is therefore under the management of each individual agency, and largely works well within each individual stovepipe.

However, any emergency event or public safety incident of magnitude requires a multi-agency response. During these events, the various agencies and multiple levels of government must interoperate and collaborate to ensure effective and efficient response. As stated in the Public Safety Canada Communications Interoperability Strategy for Canada: “In the event of a large-scale, complex emergency or event in Canada, no single agency at any level of government would have the required authority and expertise to act unilaterally. A complex emergency or event is one that triggers a variety of mandates, crosses jurisdictional boundaries, and requires an approach that aligns policy and integrates efforts by federal, provincial, regional, and local responder organizations. Such events may also require support from international partners.”

Independence vs Collaboration
It has been well documented that the creation of effective multi-agency interoperability and collaboration is one of the primary challenges in public safety and emergency management. In the 2009 Report to the House of Commons, the Auditor General indicated that the main constraint to interoperability was the ability (or inability) of “fire, police and ambulance services to talk to one another and to communicate across jurisdictions in an emergency.”

The solution for interoperability and collaboration involves commonality. Collaboration can be more easily achieved if various agencies have similar organizational and command structures, have the same procedures, and have either the same communications equipment or products built to the same standards.

Having worked in the industry for over 15 years, the core challenge to achieving multi-agency interoperability appears to be the need for any one agency to maintain its independence while at the same time being able to collaborate when required. Independence comes from being able to maintain management over ones organization, to control the organizational structure, to own the procedures, to manage the budgets, and to make resource allocation and purchasing decisions.

The management process to achieve collaboration, while fighting the resistance that the need for independence brings, is very time consuming and, as a result, change is slow. Any solution requires extensive committees across multiple agencies to enable solutions that involve everyone. The resulting solutions end up being rather abstract so that each agency can still have the independence to customize its own solution.

The extent of the effort required is illustrated through the work on public safety communications in Canada. This work began in the late 1990s and early 2000s leading to the 2003 Public Safety Radio Communications Project Report, which was followed in 2005 and again in 2008 by senior government reviews by the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence (SCONSAD) who identified the need for a National Strategy for Interoperable Communications for emergency response. These efforts led to collaborative work in 2007 by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP), the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC), and the Emergency Medical Services Chiefs of Canada (EMSCC) who joined up with the Canadian Police Research Centre (CPRC) in the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group (CITIG). The CITIG initiated the creation of the Canadian Communications Interoperability Plan (CCIP), resulting in a strategy document in 2011 followed by a 2013/14 Action Plan that is still currently being worked through.

This sequence required a decade-long process to create a multi-agency committee and publish a strategy and action plan, to be followed by who knows how much time to actually implement that plan. This will prove to be difficult as independence continues to be protected – the plan and actions “encourage participation” of all the various agencies, but participation “remains voluntary” to guarantee their independence.

With a comprehensive national communication strategy reliant on voluntary participation, it would seem that all efforts could still be at risk during procurement and implementation. Agencies will need to give up some independence and commit to purchasing against the common standard, or purchasing against a common solution that has been arranged centrally within the country, in order to gain a massive benefit towards collaboration.

Training Presents the Same Risk/Reward as Communications Equipment Procurement
The same challenge seen in communications and situational awareness systems exists in training. Individual and small team skills are developed within the local operational unit, within the local command structures, using local procedures, and exercise the specific equipment of the team.

To develop multi-agency teams that can effectively interoperate in a larger-scale emergency, training and rehearsal must occur at the inter-agency level. Police-Fire-Paramedic teams must first learn to work together at the municipal level, and then with their provincial and federal peers, with each level learning how to interoperate not only together but under the command of the next level of government in anticipation of scenarios where control of the emergency must be exercised by the next level of government.

Once again, the solution to achieve practiced multi-agency response skills is clear. If the community could conduct collective and combined training exercises on a regular basis, using simulation-driven scenarios to create realism, then the appropriate decision-making and team-response skills could be generated.

The challenge to achieve this collaboration returns once again to agency independence. Each agency has its own training plan and budget, which is typically used to focus on individual and small team training within their organization. As a result, there is no one dedicated to multi-agency collective training or combined exercises across multiple levels of government, and there is no funding source for these training activities.

Agencies such as Public Safety Canada state training is an organizational objective, however, there does not appear to be a work force dedicated to developing, training, and testing the multi-agency response across the multiple levels of government – nor does there appear to be funding sources available for combined exercises on a regular basis across the country.

In its Communications Interoperability Strategy for Canada, which identifies Training and Exercises as a core strategic objective, Public Safety Canada states that “In order for interoperability to be effective, the usage of the equipment and familiarity of procedures is achieved through regular training and exercises. This will help establish and maintain competency and familiarity between and across jurisdictions.” However, the challenge remains to identify the coordinator and/or source of this collective and combined training.

In the past, some central programs within the country existed, such as the Canadian Emergency Management College, which Public Safety Canada closed in 2012. Now, private institutions are starting to partially address the market void. The Justice Institute of British Columbia (JIBC) has focused their institution on this market, with a reported 26,000 people completing courses there each year, presumably each funded by their local agency. JIBC leverages simulation enhanced scenario based learning environments for their programs. Algonquin College in Ontario operates the Police and Public Safety Institute reaching out to the broader market, while Assiniboine Community College in Manitoba has appeared to respond to the market need through the creation of a Public Safety Training Centre (PSTC), encouraging agencies to send personnel to their scenario and simulation based training environments.

ECS patient simulation. (Photo: CAE)

In some countries, industrial training firms are starting to fill the market void for integrated multi agency training and exercise management. For example, CAE Inc. of Montreal has created a business in the country of Brunei to establish a Multi-Purpose Training Center (MPTC) which includes a multi-agency Emergency Management training center with a full curriculum, which will provide training not only for the country but also for neighbouring countries that are part of the ASEAN region. In this example, Canadian industry is investing in a Joint Venture with the federal government to create a training facility and curriculum that individual agencies can then participate in, paying as each of their students attend.

This example may have merit in Western nations to resolve the collective training procurement challenge where no central agency exists to generate or procure collective or combined training. Perhaps federal agencies that have a training mandate such as Public Safety Canada could generate Public-Private-Partnerships (PPP) with industry to create collective and combined training centers with mobile multi-agency exercise capabilities. This would create the capacity to meet the collective training need, as long as individual agencies agreed to send their individuals and teams to be trained ensuring that the capacity was leveraged. Once again, agencies would need to sacrifice a little bit of independence to gain a lot of collaborative training benefit.

If this was to occur, the highest levels of agency (Federal Public Safety) with the potentially greater access to resources, could partner with industry to create the training and exercise systems that all levels of government could independently participate in. The only trick will be that the drive for independence and the need to be able to “decide” on an annual basis how each individual and team trains would have to be compromised to some extent. Agencies have to give a little of that independence and commit to a long term training program with a centrally established training and exercise capability in order to ensure that a shared program is funded and available to drive combined and collective agency response skill development. This is all possible, but like the path that the communications community has lived in generating interoperable communication plans, it will take time to change the culture, align requirements and expectations, and affirm a commitment to a shared outcome. Giving up a little independence could generate a lot of collaborative capability.

Mike Greenley is a 25 year veteran of the defence and security market in Canada. He is currently the Vice President and General Manager of CAE Canada, and the Chair of the Board of the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI).
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