Interoperability: Fact or Fiction
on 12 April, 2013

Interoperability, mutual aid response, multi-department response pre-planning, local emergency response coordination. Are any of those ringing a bell?

How many of you have participated in drills designed to test and develop the skills needed for such a detailed and dynamic orchestration? And how many of you have actually been at the real circus that occurs? Did it run just as smoothly as the drills? What went well and what didn’t?

Was there a unifying factor to the deficiencies? Would more practice eliminate them?

A lot of good questions at play here and in my experience there are just as many perspectives to consider. The word that I used earlier is perfect for this topic.

ORCHESTRATION. What better analogy for a multi-agency response, than an orchestra?  Think about it.

What good would Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake masterpiece be without the horns that attempt to personify those elegant birds? What would be missing from Bach’s chilling Toccata if there were no organ driving home each creepy note?

Defined, an orchestra is a: large group of musicians, espone whose members play a variety of different instruments” Again, what better way to describe the emergency responders that must work together on the scene of a large incident? What good would the firefighters be without their logistical support? How could the medics function if the scene is not cleared and controlled by law enforcement?

In my career, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in multiple drills simulating both the municipal and government responses, but I’ve also had the honour of serving on actual large scale emergencies where those varied layers of skills and training were brought to their ultimate test.

A multi-plane runway crash in South Florida involving hundreds of gallons of an Organo-phosphate pesticide that is so hazardous that at one point in 2000, it was being researched by the original 9-11 terrorist team as an option for a domestic attack in the United States. On the day that I showed up to put out the flaming wreckage of the crop-dusters involved, there was little training that could have prepared me for what we would be in for over the next eight hours.

A series of rockets that hit directly in the center square of an American Post Exchange in Baghdad during peak shopping hours. Americans down, Local nationals down, perimeter breach considerations, secondary device factors. Did my training prepare me for that? Did a Mass Cal Simulation really give me the experience I needed to function when the blood was spraying and the pieces of Russian rocket were sizzling in the sand?

The answer is yes to both of those scenarios, but not in the way that you may think.

To delve into this issue further, we really must begin at the beginning.

Interoperability – What are we really talking about here?

Basically, the ability for multiple agencies -with sometimes competing priorities and jurisdictional authorities - to come together in the interest of saving lives and protecting property.

In my overall experience, it’s my opinion that there are multiple reasons that this concept sometimes fails to work as smoothly as we all wished it did when we needed it. The first factor has to do with the people involved. It’s common knowledge that Emergency Responders are almost universally identified as ALPHA personalities. Have you ever been in a room full of Alphas? Have you ever had the task of directing a group of Alphas to collaborate? Sure, as Fire Officers, we do that almost every shift, but those are Alphas that you’ve worked with, studied, and learned to motivate. What about groups of Alphas that you’ve never seen before? Alphas that have badges that are bigger than yours and jurisdiction that envelops everything that you thought was ‘yours?’

Yeah, that’s a big part of the failures that I’ve seen on training evolutions. We call it the ‘sand-box’ philosophy. There isn’t an Alpha alive that likes someone else kicking things around in “their sand-box.” Throw in some rank considerations, a couple of heavily outfitted SUV’s with light-bars and you’ve got a serious case of peacocks in your sandbox.

On multiple occasions, I’ve seen personality’s over-ride common sense. I’ve seen rank and structure overlook the common knowledge that was right in front of them, and I’ve seen strong willed leaders bow down to an unwritten pecking order for no good reason. Does it happen on the drills? Nope. In that setting it seems as if everyone comes to play nice.

“We’re just here to learn to work together.”

“We bring our resources to support your teams!”

 “Everything we have is at your disposal!”

All great bumper-sticker quotes that I’ve heard at various drills over the years. But when the emergency is real and the smell of burnt flesh is undeniable, why is it that those team-work concepts fade so quickly?

Do we get the job done? Every time!

 As skilled operators, we get the job done regardless of the circumstances, but time and time again I’ve seen petty misunderstandings and short-sighted leadership make things more difficult and complicated than they needed to be.

So how does one defeat those challenges? The answer that I’ve seen over time is the “personalization” of the process. You need to have repeated interactions with these agencies that you’ll be dealing with and you begin to create a real relationship with them over time. Getting to learn their weaknesses and strengths, getting to know them as people instead of groups, sectors or divisions and they begin to naturally lose their pomposity. The problem with that of course, boils down to cost. These multi-agency drills are expensive, and it’s always hard to find funding for them. After all, no one likes to pay for something that they never want to use.

So that’s where the personal investment of the key players comes in, make those connections, reach out to the people that you’ll be working with and don’t wait for a coordinated drill to put a face to the names. When it comes down to it, the skill sets we all have in place should be plenty capable of handling the actual emergency. We need to remove all of the other hurdles of personality, seniority and privilege so that we can get down to the task at hand.

~ From the Shadows

The Fire Ninja

  • Operation Florian

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