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What is Interoperability?

There is an increased need for Minnesota’s emergency responders (such as law enforcement, fire service and emergency medical services) to exchange information within and across their own disciplines. It’s called interoperability, and it can help emergency responders save lives.
 
Minnesota has adopted many federal recommendations for improved interoperability, including:
  • Employing a statewide interoperability coordinator (SWIC).
  • Engaging a Statewide Executive Interoperability Committee (SEIC).
  • Following a Statewide Communications Interoperability Plan (in Minnesota, this is our Strategic Plan).
  • Adhering to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Interoperability Continuum.
  • Developing a Communications Unit program.
In its most elemental format, interoperability provides common radio channels emergency responders can use to talk with one another. But to work successfully, interoperability must include more than just a shared technology. It requires a supportive governance structure, common procedures and practice. Interoperability solutions must also be put into use.
 
Minnesota is actively taking a deeper look at interoperability, even beyond voice interoperability over a radio. The newest challenge is interoperable data. Today, many of us use our telephones to text or consume data more than we use them to make voice calls. Those same needs exist for public safety as well.
 

What is Minnesota doing to achieve interoperability? 

Minnesota has many historical interoperability initiatives, most of which are rooted in Land Mobile Radio (LMR) interoperability. These projects will serve us very well now and will springboard the state into the world of interoperable data.
 

Land Mobile Radio 

Minnesota’s LMR is known as ARMER (Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response), and it is inherently interoperable. While most ARMER users spend most of their time using local, private talkgroups (channels), there are also local, county, regional and statewide interoperability talkgroups available for their use.
 

Cross Spectrum Interoperability System

Federal law enforcement, some Minnesota public safety entities and public safety visitors use VHF radio systems. Most VHF radios are incapable of direct communication with ARMER users because they operate on a different band. To bridge that gap, Minnesota has installed a VHF network consisting of 109 tower and several common VHF interoperability channels, all of which may be seamlessly patched to ARMER. This network is informally called Minnesota’s VHF Overlay.
 

800MHz National Interoperability Channel Repeaters 

Minnesota maintains about a dozen fixed repeater sites with 800 MHz interoperability channels. These sites allow for interoperability with non-ARMER system users with 800 MHz radios and serves Minnesota public safety as a redundant radio system in the unlikely event of an ARMER failure or overload.
 

Strategic Technology Reserve 

Each of Minnesota’s seven emergency communications/services regions maintains a transportable telescoping tower and repeater system and a cache of spare radios collectively known as the Strategic Technology Reserve (STR). The STR provides a portable, redundant radio system available to support areas where ARMER may have been disabled, such as after a tornado, to support special events such as a county fair, and for interstate deployments.
 

Communications Unit 

The Communications Unit (COMU) is responsible for communications in the National Incident Management System (NIMS) Incident Command System (ICS). Minnesota’s communications professionals have embraced this methodology for supporting communications about incidents large and small. Minnesota has more than 60 communication unit leaders (COMLs) and nearly 20 communications unit technicians (COMTs) available.
 

Minnesota Field Operations Guide 

The Minnesota Communications Field Operations Guide (MNFOG) is a collection of technical reference material to aid COMU personnel and other communications professionals during emergency incidents and planned events. The MNFOG is available to public safety answering points (PSAPs) and COMU personnel in a pocket-sized format and online in a PDF format.
 

Interoperability continuum graphic.
Figure 1: Interoperability Continuum