For decades now, it has been nearly impossible to dig into a public safety or emergency management article, lecture, or class without being told that the answer to our communication woes is interoperability.

Ever since the 9/11 Commission released its report in 2004, the push has been on to address the inability of public safety professionals from different agencies and disciplines to communicate with each other during a critical incident. We’ve seen evolving responses to this problem ranging from the push for FirstNet to the Department of Homeland Security standing up the Office for Interoperability and Compatibility. 

After years of concerted effort and hard work, the Federal Government has made considerable strides in ensuring that we are on a path to ensuring that radios, CAD/RMS, and IT systems can all meet the ultimate goal of being interoperable. We’ve reached a point where we’ve never had such a strong ability to connect so many different agencies and first responders to one another. And yet– barely noticed– is the fact that all these years later we can still barely talk to each other. 

Why? Because having everyone connected doesn’t necessarily allow everyone to communicate— it simply allows sounds or words to be spoken and heard. Communication, unfortunately, only takes place when the receiver understands the message as intended by the sender. Our original goal was interoperable communication. We’ve got that first part down– our radios are as interoperable as ever. But now that we can talk to one another, what do we say? 

To see that interoperability doesn’t necessarily equal communication, you only have to look as far as the mobile phone networks that span the globe. According to Kepios analysis , as of 2020 there were 5.2 billion unique mobile telephone users globally. This amazing global interoperable wireless communications network allows us to instantly call any one of 5.2 billion people in any of the 195 countries around the world. That is interoperability writ large. 

Unfortunately for those of us who are monolingual English speakers, those 5.2 billion people speak nearly 7,000 different languages (only ~375 million people in 50 of those countries speak English). While we may have network interoperability with 5.2 billion people, we can only communicate with just over 5% of them. 

Interoperability, it turns out, is only the first part of a larger equation– and in the high-stakes world of critical incident response, a partial solution is no solution at all. Interoperability only allows true communication if all of the people on the communication network are able to speak a common language. 

Just like those 7,000 global languages, public safety professionals speak a myriad of different languages, even within their own disciplines. Whether we’re talking about 10-codes, building location terms, or regional nomenclature, our first responders– while more connected than ever– are just as incapable of communicating across boundaries and disciplines as I would be if you dropped me in the middle of Jakarta. 

Enter CRGs

The second part of the interoperable communication equation is solved by the use of Collaborative Response GraphicsⓇ (CRGsⓇ). The graphics are standardized, site-specific common operating pictures that combine facility floor plans, high resolution imagery, site-specific nomenclature, and a gridded overlay together into one map. The gridded overlay– which uses simple alphanumeric designators– can be used to instantly communicate location with anyone who knows the alphabet and can count to ten. Even better, it presents a system-agnostic map that can be loaded into countless computer, CAD/RMS, and document distribution and access systems.

Which Way is Up?

When we’re connecting what might turn into hundreds of first responders at a critical incident location (with many of them from different jurisdictions), they all bring their own language with them. One advantage they have, though, is that virtually every first responder can speak using cardinal direction. North of an intersection. Southeast from a building. West of the command post. These are all phrases that can be useful provided we have one key piece of information: which way is north? 

Many floor plans or site maps that first responders have access to are oriented to plan north– meaning if you were unfamiliar with the site you would have no idea where the cardinal directions of north, south, east, and west were. With a CRG, north is always up. This ensures that every single responder instantly can communicate using cardinal direction. 

Now that we can use cardinal direction to our advantage, how do we communicate with  the responders (or victims/civilians on scene) who know the location best? If an active shooter is in the media center, and the media center is labeled on the CRG, how do we help everyone find that location on a map that may have hundreds of rooms and site-specific nomenclature labels? The answer is in talking big to small. 

Perhaps you use the grid designation within which the media center sits. “Shooter is in the media center near grid square hotel 4.” 

Maybe you use cardinal direction. “Meet me on the northwest side of the structure at door 4.” 

Maybe you use all three. “The shooter is in the visitor parking lot, southeast corner of grid square bravo 2.” 

And that’s the real beauty and power of a CRG. When first responders respond to an incident location covered by a CRG, they have a tool that creates a common language. It doesn’t matter if they’ve never been there before. They can use whatever nomenclature and communication tools they normally use, augmented and tied together by the common language of the alphanumeric grid, cardinal directions, and labeled site-specific nomenclature of the CRG.  

Bridging the Technology Gap

Now that we can talk to each other, we have to tackle one last (and newer) issue that inhibits communication: the technology gap. This problem grows by the day with hundreds of different school safety and critical incident alert applications that are used by different schools, businesses, and public safety entities. While many of these apps are valuable and effective, it is not realistic to expect first responders (especially when coming from mutual-aid jurisdictions) to have downloaded and logged into 15 different alert and response applications. 

Here, again, a CRG can tie it all together. Because CRGs are platform-agnostic, they can be loaded into a host of applications, CAD/RMS platforms, or mobile data terminals. They also are just as effective as a printed piece of paper. 

During a critical incident at a school, the teacher’s alert app is displaying the CRG. The dispatcher is looking at the same CRG on their CAD screen. The local responding officers are looking at the CRG on their mobile apps and in-car computers. At the same time, the cop from one county over who has responded in a mutual aid capacity is looking at a paper copy she was handed at the staging area. Multi-system distribution, system-agnostic data, interoperable connection, and a common language. That is the foundation for true interoperable communication.

Even in the most chaotic moment of a critical incident when task saturation and resource demand is at its peak, the ability to have everyone on the same page– and capable of talking big to small using the language they already know– is what makes CRGs such an invaluable and time-saving tool.

CRGs are now used across the country by schools, churches, Fortune 500 companies, professional sports arenas and stadiums, and countless other venues to ensure that first responders have a common operating picture and common language to use during a critical incident response. Equally as important, they have been endorsed by chiefs of police associations across the country. 

We’ve made great strides in the public safety world ensuring our radios and equipment are interoperable. What a waste it would be if we failed to complete the equation by giving first responders a universally accessible common language so they can fully leverage that network, bridge the technology gap, and actually communicate with one another. 

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