California's annual Golden Guardian exercises in May brought together city, county and state public safety agencies, private sector partners and volunteer organizations for an emergency response drill.
Golden Guardian is the largest emergency coordination exercise program in the country—this year's event aptly included a scenario with terrorist attacks at multiple California ports.
I attended portions of this year's exercise in Long Beach and was impressed by the thorough planning that went into it. However, reading about agencies' performances throughout the state, I was disappointed to hear about difficulties with emergency communications systems.
Effective communication is essential in large-scale emergencies. With multiple agencies working together on a complex and fast-paced incident, every second counts; there's no room for delay or error. With 9/11, we can all recall the potentially tragic consequences of a communications failure in such a situation.
Despite legislative action and increased funding for interoperable systems over the past 10 years, public safety has been slow to implement changes that could drastically improve communications capabilities.
Rather than opening up and integrating systems to allow compatibility across different equipment, industry leaders have stuck with a handful of proprietary applications made by a handful of equipment manufacturers. Being tied to specific systems has impeded our control over the level of technology available in the public safety market. These factors continue to make agencies vulnerable to communications glitches.
Many departments have used the same product lines of equipment for years. Hesitation in moving to a new system is relatable, but it will hold them back. While the U.S. military has been using interoperable communications systems for decades, few public safety agencies have experience with them.
In order to fully access the level of capabilities available today and avoid failures during critical times, agencies will have to recognize that a jump is necessary. Only then can we fully harness capabilities that the old "tried and true" systems can't offer.
Exercises such as the Golden Guardian are an opportunity to practice; what better time to learn about a new system and become familiar with using it?
The goal of exercises such as these is to learn lessons that can guide operations for optimum performance. And if agencies can use simulations to build confidence around using cutting-edge communications systems, they'll have greater capabilities on their side and be even better prepared in the event of a real emergency.