PACE and Interoperable Communications

Primary, Alternate, Contingency, Emergency

PACE is a structure to build a communications plan.  The key to a good communications plan is that everyone has a basic idea of what will be attempted and when.  It makes no sense to be standing by a fax machine while someone is trying to call you on the radio.

Primary is the day-to-day communication system used.  This could be desk phone or cell phone for most businesses.  It can be the two-way radio system used in public safety.  Primary is the first way that you attempt to reach someone during routine times.

Alternate is the next-used system.  If you normally call a person at their desk and they are not there, the next step might be to call their cell, use a radio, page them, or call their home.  It could even be email, text messaging, whatever; there is no single right answer.  It will all depend on what systems your organization uses.  The right answer will be the consistent one that everyone knows.  This avoids the “Oh, I was listening for you on the radio; I didn’t think to check email” confusion.

Contingency is the system that you fall back to when the main methods of communicating are not working or not able to reach the person.  Normally, when this point is reached, it is obvious that something not routine is going on.  When including radios in your plan, make certain that predefined frequencies and modes have been agreed on and shared.  Saying generically that you’ll use amateur band or business band two-way radio is like telling someone that you’ll meet in Virginia and not be any more specific to the address.

Emergency is the system of last resort.  When nothing else is working, expect to pull this out.  There are two important things to note here.  Anything kept behind glass that says “break in case of emergency” will not work.  The equipment will not be tested and the users not trained.  Make certain that your emergency communications systems are regularly tested and used for highest impact during a disaster.  Second, sneaker-net is a valid communication system.  Setting up runners, shuttles or other ways to manually carry messages is fine.  Sometimes the best technology to use is none at all.

Interoperable Communications

Interoperable communications is not a technical problem; it is a political problem.  The technology exists today (and is widely used) to interconnect any number of systems to each other.  The political problem comes in when teams from different organizations are in direct contact in a way that bypasses the “normal” chain of command.  Regardless of how much interoperability exists, the Police Chief wants authority over all the police units and the Fire Chief wants authority over all the fire units.

Everyone wants interoperable communications but who do they really want to talk with?  Do they want the ability to do broadcast information that cross many channels, or is it for two-way exchanges between anyone?

Interoperability requires pre-disaster decisions to be made.  Who is authorized to activate or start using the interoperability channels?  Who has the authority to control radio traffic on the shared channel?  When units are engaged on the interoperability channels, do they have an expectation to monitor or check in on their normal primary channel?  The Incident Command Systems appears to resolve these problems but only within the scope of the incident itself.  These political pitfalls exist outside ICS.  Major incidents can be divides across a number of channels so interoperability isn’t just one channel but a whole suite depending on local plans.

Ten-digit interoperability: The phone system is a communication system, and totally interoperable.  You give me your phone number and I’ll give you mine.  It is simple and works everywhere in the US.  The basic telephone number is still the foundation of voice communication regardless if it is land-line, cellular, or satellite.

I like to tell people that I do INTRA-operable communication.  If I can get my organization to talk to itself, then most of my work is done.