A Network of Interoperability

by Charles Werner

Managing an incident response in today’s complicated, and interconnected, world requires a high degree of interoperability – i.e., the coordination and communication of vital information with numerous responders at all levels of command and both across and within many organizations. The goal, of course, is to ensure that all hands within an organization and their counterparts in other organizations have the most up-to-date information they need as soon as possible.

In the past, meeting that goal was a difficult challenge for the Charlottesville, Virginia, Fire Department. And, in practice, connecting with federal partners, public safety officials in other states, and/or anyone else with a need to know in the broader homeland security community, has required a lot of manpower. Moreover, when information was shared, it frequently was not the most current information available. In short, maintaining communications in general was a difficult, time-consuming, and often frustrating process.

Building & Using Secure Communications For fire departments, maintaining and improving communications with colleagues in the fire service – and with other local responders – has become a high priority. In Charlottesville, use of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN) has helped to significantly improve such communications over the past several years. The latest iteration of the network, called HSIN R3, became available earlier this year and the full migration of all users and content was recently finalized in August.

Although the HSIN has been in service for a decade, and has become a particularly valuable information-sharing tool both in Virginia and in many other emergency responder departments and agencies across the nation, the R3 version has gone through a major upgrade. As a secure online system made up primarily of mission-focused sites, for example, the HSIN enables many different communities of homeland security professionals to collaborate and share sensitive information with other trusted members both across state lines and between organizations. Obviously, this information sharing also helps to build better, more cordial, and more helpful working relationships among different disciplines and at various levels of government.

Today, members of the HSIN community routinely use the network to support incident management operations, while also delivering regularly scheduled as well as emergency alerts, warnings, and other important intelligence information. In April 2013, to cite but one example recently in the news, HSIN was used to provide vital unified information to law enforcement professionals nationwide both during and after the multi-agency response to the Boston Marathon terrorist attack. The network also has, for many years, supported major operations centers during such national events as Fourth of July celebrations, the National Scout Jamboree, weather disasters (Hurricane Sandy was a prime example), and even the Super Bowl and other major sporting events.

A Routine Task – With Life-Saving Benefits By using HSIN each day, officials can quickly and easily: (a) view situational assessments from the public safety community in general; (b) access invaluable background information about what is going on both in a particular locality and around the country; and (c) help establish trusted relationships with other public safety officials from the local, tribal, state, federal, and private sectors.

The upgraded HSIN R3 version will provide a new set of collaboration tools for secure web conferencing, instant messaging and chat, and both document and image sharing. There already have been many success stories, of course – from law enforcement, incident response, and public safety agencies – that can be attributed to improved information sharing via HSIN. Daily use of the network by public safety officials across the nation will assuredly save even more precious time in the event of a national crisis when accurate real-time information is urgently needed for response operations.

The relatively easy steps to access HSIN are as follows: (a) email the HSIN Outreach Team at; (b) connect with a Mission Advocate; and (c) locate an existing HSIN site – or establish a new one. Connecting and collaborating with other HSIN members has already greatly benefitted the Charlottesville Fire Department, and undoubtedly, when the R3 version is online, will provide even greater benefits in the future.

________________________ Charles Werner is a 39-year veteran of the fire-rescue service who now serves as chief of the Charlottesville, Virginia, Fire Department. He also serves on the HSIN Advisory Committee as a representative of the fire service. He can be reached at