First Responder Communications and Interoperability in Vermont

PRS Briefs
Monday, July 23, 2007

This report seeks to assess the status of first responder communications and interoperability  in  Vermont  and  describes  the  potential  of  interoperable  equipment  to assist   in   responding   to   natural   and   man-made   disasters.   We   interviewed   eight communications   experts   and   local   officials   throughout   the   state   and   assessed the interoperability of equipment at three potential security threats:

Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant

Vermont Yankee is located on the New Hampshire/Vermont border in southern Vermont. It has recently undergone a series of drills to test evacuation procedures in the case of an emergency  at  the plant.  There  were  two  major  problems  with  the  communications equipment in two separate drills. As a result, buses did not arrive at the appropriate place to  evacuate  schoolchildren and  news  reports  were  confusing  and  inaccurate.  The  plant has not participated in any statewide homeland security exercises, and the commissioner of public safety in Vermont has expressed concerns over the plant’s safety.1

United States – Canadian Border

It is important that police and border patrol agents in New York, Vermont, and Canada can communicate  with  one  another  regarding  potential  terrorist  threats  and  illegal activities. Our report found that this would be extremely difficult today because different departments  in  different  states  use  different  types  of  radios  –  analog,  digital,  and sometimes both. Officials have conducted numerous exercises at the border involving the Vermont Department of Public Safety’s Homeland Security Unit, local first responders, and Canadian agencies. The most recent exercise was in October 2005 and was almost entirely funded at the federal level.2

Burlington International Airport

Burlington  International  Airport  serves  as  an  entryway  into  the  United  States  from Canada, making it a security concern. Airport security is a division of Burlington’s police
department and can therefore communicate with the city’s police department effectively. To  our  knowledge,  the  airport  has  no  standardized  procedures  to  inform  surrounding communities if there is a terrorist attack on the airport or if a suspected criminal evades customs  agents.  However,  the  facility  is  part  of  a  mutual-assistance  agreement  in  case there is an accident or a natural disaster that requires more response than Burlington can provide.

Our   study   finds   that,   with   the   exception   of  two   cities   that   have   upgraded their communications infrastructures through millions of dollars in homeland security grants,
Vermont’s   first   responder   agencies   have   not   fully   mobilized   to   improve   their interoperable communications. There is a perception among agency officials that using multiple radios or frequencies is an effective example of an interoperable infrastructure, when, in fact, interoperability can be improved on many more levels:

•    The  communications  infrastructure,  equipment,  and  technology  could  be improved.   

Efforts   to   replace   older   analog   radio   systems   with   new interoperable equipment and computerized dispatch and communications hubs may be beneficial. Digital-voice modulation and data transfer to mobile data terminals (MDTs) represent the forefront of interoperable communications. In lieu  of  such  infrastructure  upgrades,  a  parallel  interoperable  system  can  be established with cell phones and portable radios.

•    While  there  is  training  at  the  statewide  level,  there  have  been  no  exercises designed  exclusively  to  test  interoperability.  A  combination  of  classroom instruction,  
tabletop  drills,  and  live  drills  specifically  designed  to  address interoperability    could  be    useful.    Even    without    these    drills,    routine communication   between   local,
  state,   and   federal   authorities   could   be encouraged to open these channels as much as possible. Some localities turn air    shows,    state    fairs,    and    other   events    into    
opportunities    to    test communications between multiple first responder organizations.

•    Steps  could  be  taken  to  improve  the  grant  application  process  for  first responders at the municipal level. Often, police and fire chiefs are burdened with applying for grants and only do so through the state Homeland Security Unit.  It  may  be  beneficial  to  encourage  local  law  enforcement  and  fire services  to  apply  for  grants  and  run  workshops  about  grant  seeking  and proposal writing. Vermont  is  already  on  the  way  to  addressing  these  interoperability  issues  with  the implementation  of  the  Vermont  Communications  (VCOMM)  group,  which  enables cooperation between different parts of the state.