Technology includes the bulk of what is frequently understood in the terms “communications,” “interoperability,” and “information technology.” Technology is the medium through which communications and infrastructure needs are met, and can be thought of as the physical layer of communications. It includes all of the capital infrastructure investment for communications and information technology. Although technical failures are by no means uncommon, they can frequently be circumvented using alternate technologies, provided the procedures, skills, and organizational will remain to implement such expedients.
This conceptual model presents a number of useful insights. First, problems (and the perceptions of problems) tend to propagate downward (from 1 to 4) through the stack, so that various non-technical issues can end up being framed as technology failures. For example, police and firefighters at a traffic accident might have subtly different organizational priorities. The firefighters might be focused on the well-being of victims at the scene, while the police might be tasked with reestablishing unhampered traffic flow for the larger community. This organizational difference might lead to personal and procedural conflicts that ultimately might be (mistakenly) characterized as a “communication problem” and then (also mistakenly) interpreted as a failure of “interoperability,” which is frequently assumed to be a technical issue.
Second, change tends to propagate upward (from 4 to 1) through the stack. Effective use of new technologies requires and enables new procedures, which in turn require new skills and create new challenges, to which organizations ultimately must adapt. For example, in many large organizations, computer-based word-processing software was first introduced in a “word-processing pool” office, by analogy to previous typing and dictation pools. Over time the opportunities that provided for faster and more flexible service moved the new technology out to secretarial desks in the operating departments, and eventually onto the desktops of commanders and executives. The word-processing pool, and in some cases the secretary as well, faded into organizational history.
Third, many interoperability and data-sharing challenges are not fully or even mostly technical in nature. Indeed, as noted in the report summarizing a workshop convened as part of this project, better “human organization, willingness to cooperate, and a willingness of government at higher levels to listen to those at local levels who really do the work and who are the actual responders are all critical factors in making better use of information technology for disaster management.”19 As a result, many inter-