The challenges of policing border areas
By Tom Rataj
By Tom Rataj
The final version of an in-depth analysis of the history, current and future state of cross-border communications between Canadian and US emergency responders focuses on first-responder communication issues.
A joint effort of the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group (CITIG) and US National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC), the report was published in March.
Subtitled: “Barriers, Opportunities, and Solutions for Border Area Emergency Responders,” the reports intent is “to clarify legal and regulatory policies, identify best practices and examples of interoperability excellence, and advance specific recommendation to enhance public safety communications at the national border.”
Lack of direct peer-to-peer communications is related mostly to regulatory and technological barriers that cause personal risk to emergency responders and often reduces response times and effectiveness.
The Canada-U.S. border stretches for 8,891 km. and is the world’s longest continuous straight international boundary. There are many instances of cross-border emergency responder interaction on a daily basis.
A large percentage of Canada’s population lives within a fairly narrow geographical strip next to our mostly southern border with the US. South of the 49th, the population is generally less concentrated.
There are large adjacent metropolitan communities but most border areas are small, sparsely populated, mostly-rural municipalities that are often under-equipped and under-resourced to deal with large-scale emergencies.
Whether rural or municipal, most jurisdictions have mutual aid agreements with neighbours. Many government agencies, such as hydro-electric authorities and others, also rely on mutual aid agreements.
During the forest-fire season for example, it’s not uncommon for fire-fighting crews from one province or territory to travel across the country, to the US or even further afield to provide short-term assistance.
Mutual aid and spontaneous assistance requests become much more complicated and time-sensitive when they involve crossing the border. Not only does the border present a challenging physical and jurisdictional barrier, it also presents a long list of other challenges, mostly to do with communications or the lack thereof.
One of the primary goals of the report is to help agencies work together towards making cross-border communications work at the operational street level.
To be the most efficient and effective, emergency responders need to be able to communicate directly with one another. Voice communication is most critical, but data and video communication is also becoming increasingly important.
The report also deals with the policies, procedures and actual mechanics of enabling efficient and speedy cross-border travel for emergency responders.
Radio frequencies and channels and the licences to use them, along with regulatory rules and restrictions, add to the complications.
To prevent radio interference between agencies there are restrictions on the power of radio transmissions within 120km of the border. These can interfere with normal operations by reducing range or even causing radio dead-zones. The RCMP even put a transmission tower on the US side of the border to prevent dead-zones on the Canadian side.
Emergency responders crossing the border to provide assistance often lose contact with their dispatchers because of the range limits caused by the lower power output restrictions.
Since Canadian and US emergency responders are only licenced to use radio frequencies in their own countries, agreements need to be put into place to allow them to legally use their radios on the other side of the border.
The ongoing switch to digital and encrypted voice-radio communications creates an additional layer of complexity when it comes to interoperability.
When the 74-car freight train destroyed the downtown of Lac-Megantic, Quebec on July 6, 2013, mutual-aid agreements were already in place and fire services and other emergency-responders from the largely rural eastern townships responded.
Seven departments from the Franklin County, Maine fire department made the 50km+ trip to help control the inferno. As you can imagine, this required coordination between both Canadian and US border agencies and sharing of radio equipment.
In another recent incident along the St. Lawrence River, New York’s Fort Covington Fire Department (FCFD) was dispatched to a call for a snowmobiler that had gone through the ice on the river near Dundee, Quebec.
An airboat from the Hogansburg/Akwesasne Tribal Fire Department in Quebec was sent to assist with the rescue attempt. The St. Anicet (Quebec) fire department also responded and when the airboat arrived the FCDC handled the rescue, first taking the victim to the Canadian side and then by ambulance to a US hospital. The Canadian victim was accompanied across the border and to the hospital by a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent.
One can only imagine the challenges in both incidents because none of the emergency responders could communicate directly with cross-border peers. The Canadian and US 911 operators spent the entire time managing the emergency response by telephone and their respective radio systems, creating a high potential for miscommunication and dangerous delays.
Much work was put into preparing the report and its recommendations and information about how to improve the situation. Among the recommendations:
• Distribute the report to all stakeholders.
• Brief the joint Canada/US Communications Interoperability Working Group (CANUS-CIWG).
• Continue outreach and monitoring efforts by CITIG and NPSTC to all affected emergency response and government agencies and law makers.
The report contains numerous examples of best-practices, methodologies and excellence in cross-border coordination and communications. The CITIG web site contains a document library that supplements this report with policy, procedure, governance agreements and various current and historical treaties and agreements between Canada and the US
Communications interoperability is a huge challenge and much work still needs to be done both at home and with cross-border challenges. Both CITIG and NPSTC have worked diligently to advance the multiple aspects of this critical issue by researching and preparing this report, which is available at http://www.citig.ca/cross-border.aspx.
The report is an interesting read even if your agency doesn’t deal with cross-border issues because of its discussions of interoperability, policies and protocols already being championed across the country by various agencies.
Interoperability can be very complicated, but there is a lot of information already available that provides a good educational starting point.