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.