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O N L I N E  E X C L U S I V E

Q&A: Interoperability in Nebraska

March 11, 2009

 

  
Photo courtesy NEMA

 

Emergency responders in the state of Nebraska are bridging communications gaps with an innovative interoperability technology and governance. A new communications system is providing incident commanders with important resources for coordinating joint operation responses. An incident-specific communications planning tool, the database software has proven pivotal in identifying what is needed for state agencies to successfully interoperate with their regional and local partners. Nebraska Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) Assistant Director Al Berndt gives an inside look at this technology and how it’s helping the state of Nebraska advance interoperability progress.

MCC: How did Nebraska decide on an interoperability technology?

Berndt: The state of Nebraska’s local and state emergency responders identified dollar cost as the primary obstacle that was keeping our state from having a completely interoperable communications system. Nebraska officials recognized that the state needed a cost-effective platform that would allow it to integrate disparate systems. At the initiation of our interoperability efforts, we recognized that if the state approached localities with a top-down solution and mandates, this wasn’t going to work. In Nebraska, state entities are peers to local and regional entities. In our governing bodies, local and state agencies have an equal voice; we are equal partners. We also identified early on that interoperable communications isn’t as much a technology problem as it’s the desire to communicate. Before pursuing a technology solution, we first identified why we needed to communicate. Then, we identified how we were going to communicate.

A system developed by Arizona-based Interop-Solutions was a good fit for Nebraska. It was cost effective and supported our comprehensive system-of-systems approach to interoperability. A statewide license for the sytem costs $1 million to $4 million, depending on the number of public-safety access points. Moreover, it was scalable and customizable, enabling Nebraska to effectively integrate local and regional communications systems into a state agency radio system without imposing a massive, one-size-fits-all approach. The technology’s capacity to adapt to the needs of our emergency responders has proven it a sustainable solution.

MCC: What types of capabilities does the technology provide users?

Berndt: The Interop-Solutions system helps users build databases and inventories of agencies, frequencies, resources, policies and procedures that are required to support an incident. The system provides a database builder, an integrated planner, an open communication interface to any radio type, an incident command system (ICS) report generator, a mapping interface and emergency operations center (EOC) management module. The system database also is populated with a national database that contains all of the public and private entities needed to support communications at the state or local level. All of this data is provided as part of the system. The system’s planning tool builds on the operational requirements inventoried by assisting users in creating a plan that identifies the requirements needed by a jurisdiction for a response regardless of size, number of emergency responders or type of incident.

The planning tool enables users to generate a complete tactical interoperable communications plan for any level of governance. Users can then operationalize these plans using the software’s Paraclete technology. The Paraclete technology acquires communications assets and creates an infrastructure that helps users implement communications plans. This operational component of the software provides users with scaled functionality across all incident types — from routine dispatch operations to national disasters — and interoperability across agencies from public-safety answering points (PSAPs) to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) entities at the regional level. Users have the option of activating Paraclete in exercise and training mode by helping to coordinate local, regional and state preparation activities.

MCC: How has the technology impacted emergency response operations?

Berndt: The Interop-Solutions system has provided reliable, seamless interoperability between our communications centers and emergency-response agencies. When a large-scale ice storm devastated parts of central Nebraska, nearly the entire region lost power. However, thanks to the connection Paraclete provided between dispatch centers, emergency responders didn’t experience an interruption in dispatch communications — even when some centers lost power. Currently, the state EOC uses the software to monitor incidents in regions where dispatch centers have installed the system. When a grain elevator exploded and erupted into flames in central Nebraska, the state EOC 175 miles away from the site was able to monitor the incident through the system.

MCC: How does the communications software fit into Nebraska’s overall strategy for interoperability progress?

Berndt: Nebraska has championed a system-of-systems approach to interoperability by linking disparate, legacy systems. The Paraclete technology connects communications devices of different frequencies; the system supports connectivity between disparate gateway devices, as well as between VoIP and telephone devices. Simply put, the Interop-Solutions technology is the linchpin tying all of these systems together. The technology has supported our integration of local, regional and state agency systems by managing communications assets through networked radio interfaces within the system.

We intentionally managed this project through the local emergency management directors at the local and state levels so that their communications plans were included in the planning process. The database software tool has enabled us to cohesively integrate local emergency management plans and the tactical interoperable communications plans. By rolling these plans into the technology tool, local and regional processes have become integral to long-term statewide planning.

MCC: What is the technology’s potential impact beyond Nebraska’s borders?

Berndt: The technology is a core component of Nebraska’s communications strategy. As such, as Nebraska’s division of communications looks to expand our interoperable communications capabilities beyond state borders, the system will continue to serve as our pathway to connectivity.


 

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