Interoperability Is a Cultural Problem

21 12 2010

This is an interesting opinion piece written by Jim McKay published in Emergency Management magazine:

[Homeland Security and emergency management publications have] written extensively about interoperability, mostly about the nuts and bolts of a system being deployed and the grant process that allowed said deployment to happen.   If there’s collaboration among the agencies or jurisdictions involved, we jump all over it, because that’s the name of the game these days.

A common refrain years ago was that agency or jurisdiction A couldn’t communicate with agency or jurisdiction B — or even within its own agency or jurisdiction. That was said to be an operability problem — not an interoperability problem.   Billions of dollars have been spent on interoperability since 9/11 and genuine progress has been made, but it seems that emergency managers view interoperability as something still to be attained.

For the most part, if agency A wants to talk to agency B, it can be achieved; the technology to facilitate this is available. And still interoperability is a problem. We heard so at a recent round-table discussion involving several emergency managers.

Everybody at the table agreed: It’s a cultural problem.   Agency A doesn’t talk to agency B because the two aren’t really familiar with each other — or maybe they just don’t want to talk.

“Everybody talks about the quantifiable parts of interoperability — the money, the hardware — but not enough about the behavior part of it,” one emergency manager said. “How much effort is being put into the cultural aspect of it?”

Even where there’s a new, multimillion-dollar system, agency personnel revert to previous behavior. “Everything happens the way it did before, even after getting this new system,” another emergency manager said. “The police guy calls the dispatcher and he calls the fire guy; they still talk in silos. Unless we address this behavior, we’ll have a $100 million doorstop.”

There’s also the issue of language. We know different jurisdictions and agencies use different codes to communicate. Coming up with a common language has to be the first part of the cultural change, said an emergency manager.   And emergency managers can play key roles in this quest by hosting planning calls and conference calls — getting people to communicate regularly.   “The best thing to do is have commanders sit next to each other in the operations centers.”

Another thing about interoperability that people stub their toes on is the notion that everyone must be able to talk to everyone, one participant said. “Everybody on the ground doesn’t have to talk to each other. When you bring people from other jurisdictions, you can plug people into your system. That to me is true interoperability.”

I wonder if in 10 years we’ll still be writing about interoperability as we do today — that it’s something that’s desired but still needs to be attained. Or will agencies and local governments move outside of their comfort zones and take advantage of the technology that’s readily available — will they open the dialog with their neighbors, making interoperability yesterday’s news?

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