Fire Fighting in Canada

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Lingo and logistics

Interagency communication and interoperability among first responders

November 4, 2021  By Kaitlin Secord

Technology supports interagency communications, but barriers remain with lingo and terminology. PHOTO CREDIT: © ftfoxfoto/Adobe Stock

Current interagency communication techniques are like a step stool in your tool kit, infrequently used, but important and helpful when the time comes. While there are workarounds to it, like standing on your toes, and stretching to reach, nothing quite beats the real thing. 

Equipment and strategies of interagency communication are currently “only used in moments of need, rather than a system that is ingrained into the public safety space,” said Michael Akpata, applied solutions manager at Mutualink and former first responder.  It should be “something that people automatically expect it to be there, as opposed to being surprised when it is.” 

Interagency communication and interoperability go hand in hand. In regards to public safety, interagency communication is the ability of two or more agencies to understand each other’s communications, and interoperability is the technological ability to exchange information. 

“You cannot talk about one without the other.” Akpata said. “While technology has made it easier than using a PA system, there is a barrier in lingo and terminology.” 


As a way to fill the void in communication systems, Calgary’s assistant deputy chief, Scott Cowan, encourages municipalities and agencies to participate in training sessions.  

During the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs’ Fire-Rescue 2021 conference, Cowan gave a presentation on how Calgary’s first responders have joined together to create a course that encourages learning how to work together effectively. 

By creating a training course for incident command staff from each agency – fire, police, EMS and 911 — the departments were able to better understand and learn from each other’s perspectives. 

Using multi-agency exercises and referencing actual incidents helped Calgary’s first responders to gauge three key principles when it comes to interoperability; co-location, coordination and communication/ common operating picture. 

Co-location refers to getting commanders from each agency to a “single, safe location near the scene” where operations and planning can be hosted. Having a “home-base” established lets people know where to turn when new information is received or required and allows for coordination among all agencies on scene. 

Coordination and communication go hand-in-hand – understanding each agency’s objectives and associated risks will help to prevent miscommunication and encourage shared situational awareness. Sharing standard best practices can also help each agency to function within their own parameters without interfering with others. 

Radio interoperability is another substantial obstacle for emergency service workers. As a key part of communications systems, this workaround could be considered one of the most important. 

In his presentation, Cowan suggests obtaining support from an EOC during large multi-agency responses. This can help teams to coordinate with on-scene incident commanders while preventing further distraction, which in turn lets first responders do their job. Emergency management agencies are useful in establishing these centres, which can aid in things like managing and sharing information and establishing response priorities when resources are overwhelmed or in short supply. 

Interagency radio channels are a method in practice that work. While there is room for improvement, these channels allow responding teams to communicate, for the most part. Jurisdictional and regional hiccups are common, with some agencies unable to tune into particular channels. 

Joint risk assessment is another primary component when practicing interoperability. Cowan describes the five key components to the process as situational awareness, hazard/ risk assessment (established through coordination and communication), hazard control, decision point and evaluate. 

This process is key to ensuring that all agencies can see the risks of an incident through the lenses of all the other response agencies.  It is only through understanding the risk from each other’s perspectives that responders can control these hazards and work towards incident mitigation.  

“Many emergency responders use past experience to categorize situations initially.” Cowan said. Having the experiences of EMS, fire, and police come together in one place is an extremely powerful way to build joint situational awareness. It helps to decipher if there is a clear baseline of what needs to be communicated, and to who. 

By actively practicing joint situational awareness, joint risk assessment and weekly multi-agency radio testing, Calgary’s first responders “are more successful at working as a team” Cowan said.  

Akpata suggests using debriefs after real incidents as a way to work on interagency communication as well. 

Fire Chief John McKearney, Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs president and director of fire services in Whistler, B.C., stresses the importance of interagency communication during interprovincial events and large-scale events like 9/11. 

“Being able to communicate effectively before, during and even after events was, and still is crucial for everyone.” McKearney said. “First responders gaining intel to things like terrorist threats allow us to be of real service in situations such as 9/11.”

With frustration and miscommunication being the last things wanted on scene, some agencies have turned to using smart devices as a workaround. Different radio channels and compatibilities can make it challenging to keep track of who knows what information. Ever changing phone numbers and job status, due to promotions, retirements and relocations, “can make it even more of a headache to track people down,” Akpata said

In an already chaotic situation, organizations are turning to open source chat apps. Everyone involved in and on the scene are added to a chat and information is shared here. 

“The problem with these is that you are now becoming the monetized thing, you are trusting a security system that was not designed for this sort of confidential use. Leaks happen all the time, the worst-case scenario would be information ending up on social media because of an insecure platform.” said Akpata.

In 2019, Public Safety Canada published a progress report for the Public Safety Broadband Network, PSBN. The PSBN is a “secure, high-speed wireless data communications network” that would allow emergency responders and public safety personnel to communicate not only during emergency situations, but also during day-to-day operations. 

Overall takeaways from the report were that a dedicated network, such as PSBN, is not the most affordable cost structure for an interagency communications platform. Even while maximizing existing infrastructure, PSBN would need to leverage more resources in coverage, sustainability and use of spectrum. 

These have long been the issues associated with establishing a dedicated network for first responders and public safety personnel. 

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is set to launch a new way for the public to communicate with first responders. Next-Generation 9-1-1 is intended to expand the details provided to responders about an emergency. Whether a picture of the fire they are reporting or providing medical details, NG 9-1-1 is set to be rolled out over the coming years. 

“For Canadian cities with large numbers of people whose first language is not English or French, Next-Generation 9-1-1 will help them help themselves and first responders.” Akpata said. 

By March 1, 2022, all telecommunications providers will be updating their networks in anticipation for NG 9-1-1. “There’s an emphasis on working as a team, and the more information first responders receive beforehand, the more they’ll be able to coordinate before even arriving on the scene.” 

Whether NG 9-1-1, whiteboard session or workarounds, “first responders need support in communication.” Akpata said, “and it needs to be a team effort, if I adopt the technology and you don’t, I can’t talk to you. I may be able to talk to my people more effectively, but we still have the same problem.”

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