APCO 2019 Quick Take: Interoperable Radio Proved Critical During School Shootings

Improve public safety emergency communications by designing P25 systems and bringing stakeholders to the table early so systems are ready when you need them most.

Public safety radio interoperability was one thing that emergency communications didn’t have to overcome when the unthinkable – school shootings – happened in their communities, according to emergency communications leaders presenting "Calm in the Chaos" at the 85th Annual APCO Conference in Baltimore.

During the session, James Miller, formerly radio systems administrator at Hamilton County Public Safety Communications in Indiana and Scott Wright, telecommunications engineer with the Connecticut Department of Emergency Service and Public Protection, shared lessons learned from pre-planning efforts and operations with their trunked P25 radio systems.

For Miller, the Noblesville West Middle School shooting on May 25, 2018, brought every jurisdiction in the region to the school. Cellular networks were busy and overwhelmed, but their Motorola digital P25 radio system, an 800Mhz system built to be interoperable, stayed online with 45% system utilization at the height of the event.

Memorable Quotes

“Because our 'RTC' did lots of hard work before a major incident, our school shooting incident went about as smoothly as one could go,” said Miller.

“The biggest thing we have done since 2012 is improve our relationships,” said Wright.

“When the big one does hit, everyone can work together,” stressed Miller.

4 Key Takeaways on P25 Interoperable Radio

#1 Interoperable Radios Prove Critical When Needed Most

Wright noted that in 2012, the state of Connecticut had 80 different law enforcement communications systems. And Newtown, like many cities in a state with no county operations, was covered by the state police operating a 700MHz P25 overlay system.

While law enforcement agencies in the state have worked more closely together since, during the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, “every resource for interoperability was put to use in some way, form, or fashion, and it was very successful.”

The December 14, 2012, shooting, which took the lives of 20 students and 6 teachers, resulted in a significant number of 911 calls, and likewise, a significant response with hundreds of law enforcement departments, multiple fire and EMS agencies, New York’s mass fatality team arriving on scene and many other agencies assisting -- and all were handed radios.

The State Tactical On-Scene Channel System, which was funded after 9/11 paved the way for Connecticut’s trunked radio system, which was new in 2012, said Wright. He credited the ability to utilize the system to instantly create multiple networks that were fluid.

Everybody could talk to each other, it was great stuff,” he said.

During the Noblesville school shooting, which began at 9:06 a.m., there were 1,800 radios tuned into the system with “zero system busies.” The suspect was in custody at 9:12 a.m., with two people shot, and no deaths, said Miller. The ability to communicate prevented the incident from being worse, he stressed.

#2 Streamlined Radio Systems Unify Operations

Hamilton County has everything from dense urban to rural areas, and is bordered by six other counties, with assisting state and federal agencies to consider in terms of interoperability. With every department on public safety’s truncated system, and thousands of radios in operation, the county set programming standards early on.

Every agency can customize their radios’ first and last zones, but otherwise, their buttons are programmed to be consistent, said Miller.

Agencies share talk groups, though Miller finds it helpful to limit which talk groups are shared with non-responding agencies -- like public works. Some members receive only police and fire’s main channels.

“We developed a boiler plate countywide [memorandum of understanding (MOU)] that we utilize with all the surrounding agencies,” said Miller, noting that it cut down on a ton of paperwork.

#3 Bringing Everyone to the Table Overcomes “Rough Spots”

“A lot of our headaches went away once everyone had a seat at the table,” said Wright, encouraging emergency communications leaders to be firm, fair and patient.

One agency cannot railroad every decision,” he said.

Today, Connecticut’s statewide P25 trunked system is available to municipalities with 1,024 channels – with interoperable crypto.

While territorial sandbox owners do exist in public safety, and there will always be chiefs concerned about tying their talk groups up, Wright said there are agency partnerships in Connecticut that could not have existed 15 years ago.

Miller said training is key – most law enforcement officers do not leave their home zones. “What good is dealing with interoperability if they don’t know how to use it?”

It’s a mindset that can be overcome -- relationships and trust are needed to make it happen, said Wright.

“It took time, and it took faith,” added Miller.

#4 Lessons Learned Can Improve Your Radio Operations

Wright said that during the Sandy Hook shooting, challenges included:

  • Issues with portable radio batteries
  • Lack of VHF P25 radios with RC4 crypto

Miller advised developing a storm plan to prevent public works and other non-responding emergency agencies from chatter during incidents, and to check the work of third-party programmers -- because they make mistakes.

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