Manmade Disasters: The Need for Interoperable Communications

Interoperable communication is an important aspect of emergency management and response.  In particular, during man-made emergencies, ensuring the availability of effective interoperable communications plans allows for the exchange of critical information in a timely fashion.  The responses to the 2003 Station Night Club fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island, and the 2005 London transit bombings would probably have been smoother with stronger, more established interoperability plans. In contrast, the response to the Northern Illinois University (NIU) campus shooting in 2008 provides an excellent example of the benefits of having pre-established interoperable communications plans in place well before they are needed in a real-life incident.

In February 2003, a pyrotechnics display ignited a massive fire during a concert at the Station Night Club in West Warwick. Almost 600 firefighters, police, and emergency medical services personnel from more than 35 state and local agencies responded to the incident. An investigator from the Office of the Medical Examiner (OME) also was dispatched to the scene. Unfortunately, the lack of interoperable communications equipment caused problems with the response effort.  The OME investigator’s vehicle was not equipped with a radio or a computer; the investigator was forced, therefore, to rely on his cellular telephone to receive situational-awareness updates while en route.  However, because the investigator was using his personal cellular telephone to communicate, he lacked a list of contact numbers of the responders on-site, and this prevented him from receiving the most up-to-date information available. His lack of information about the growing number of casualties, it was later determined, adversely affected the response level.

The 2005 London transit bombings provided another and somewhat different example of the need for interoperable communications systems. Four suicide bombers detonated explosives on three underground commuter trains and one street bus in central London. The London Ambulance Service (LAS) was unable to communicate efficiently in the aftermath of the bombings, causing a shortage of information on the nature and precise locations of the bomb explosions.  As a result, the LAS was initially told, erroneously, that there were seven different incident sites, and resources were deployed to several incorrect locations.  The several response problems that resulted were caused primarily by the LAS’s dependence on cellular phones as the primary means of communication during incidents. Moreover, the massive influx in cellular traffic strained the system beyond its planned capacity and prevented critical communications from going through.

Another Incident, a Different Approach, a Happier Ending The Northern Illinois University (NIU) shootings in 2008 serve as a much better example of the benefits of developing, and following, interoperable communications plans.  On 14 February 2008, an NIU alumnus shot and killed five students and wounded 18 others.  Fortunately, NIU emergency planners had already recognized – after the Columbine shootings in 1999 – the need for interoperable communications plans on their own campus, and one result was that the NIU Department of Police and Public Safety started to carry out a number of planning sessions not only with NIU administrators but also with representatives from state and local response agencies.

The partnerships formed and plans developed as a result of those meetings enabled NIU – and the state and local response agencies – to establish and maintain interoperable communications throughout the initial response phase of the 2008 shootings. Police officers at the scene were able not only to provide critical information to the responders in the staging area, for example, but also to issue an “all clear” for emergency medical personnel waiting to enter the incident scene after it was declared safe to do so.

The West Warwick nightclub fire and London subway bombings highlight the response difficulties caused by a lack of interoperable communications when responding to emergencies. In both incidents, a faster response and more effective deployment of resources would undoubtedly have saved many lives if adequate plans had been agreed upon and were in place beforehand. 

The NIU incident, on the other hand, shows the benefits of having a detailed and fully developed interoperable communications plan.  The lesson for other communities is obvious: By ensuring the development and promulgation of an interoperable communications plan, emergency responders will be in a much better position to gather and disseminate critical information as and when needed at the time of an unforeseen, and unforeseeable, emergency.


For information on similar incidents and detailed after-action reports, please visit the Lessons Learned Information Sharing Web site at

Omar Alkhalaf

Omar Alkhalaf, a contractor with SAIC, is an outreach and operations analyst for Lessons Learned Information Sharing (, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency’s national online network of lessons learned, best practices, and innovative ideas for the nation’s homeland security and emergency management communities. He received a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs with dual concentrations in Global Diplomacy and Governance/Middle East & North Africa Region from George Mason University in Northern Virginia.



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