THE MAGAZINE

Communicating to Save Lives

By Joseph Straw

Soldiers call it the “fog of war” when they must fight ignorant of the events occurring around them or, worse, cut off from their commanders. The same dangerous situation can arise in emergency response, when separate agencies trying to coordinate their response cannot communicate because their radio equipment is not compatible.

Achieving that type of interoperability has been a goal since 9-11. While it sounds straightforward, it has proved to be surprisingly difficult to achieve. At a hearing on the issue, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) called it “deeply unsettling” that communications interoperability “is still elusive.”

The cost of replacing legacy systems, combined with some remaining technological and operational issues, has slowed the move to full interoperability, but states and localities are making progress due partly to congressional directives being carried out by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Federal Directives

While DHS’s leadership of national interoperability efforts has evolved over time, the common thread is its SAFECOM program, a consortium of state and local officials and federal agencies that has directed national interoperability assessments, provided guidance to all levels of government, and helped prioritize federal investment in research and development.

In 2004, along with the establishment of DHS’s Office of Interoperability and Compatibility (OIC), SAFECOM issued its Interoperability Continuum, offering public-safety agencies a simple framework to assess their level of interoperability and guide their efforts.

The continuum divides interoperability efforts into five critical areas: governance, standard operating procedures, technology, training and exercises, and usage. Each area bears four or five status benchmarks. Under technology, for example, the continuum begins with sharing of identical radios between agencies, followed by use of gateways or bridges, then implementation of shared radio channels, then shared proprietary radio systems, and, finally, use of standards-based systems.

In April 2008, DHS approved statewide communications interoperability plans (SCIPs) from 56 states and territories, and three months later it issued the National Emergency Communications Plan (NECP).

The NECP sets clear and measurable national interoperability goals and deadlines that incorporate existing national efforts and accommodate existing state plans, says Charles Werner, chief of the Charlottesville, Virginia Fire Department and chair of the SAFECOM executive committee.

Under the NECP, by 2010, at least 54 of the 60 major U.S. cities designated as high-risk in DHS’s Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) program should be able to establish interoperability among commanders from different agencies and jurisdictions within one hour of responding to a “routine” event. DHS defines a routine event as anything short of a major disaster or a terrorist attack.

By 2011, 75 percent of non-UASI jurisdictions should meet that routine-event standard. By 2013, 75 percent of all jurisdictions should be able to achieve interoperability among commanders from different jurisdictions within three hours of a “significant” event, such as major natural disasters or terrorist attacks, which would draw a far larger number of mutual-aid jurisdictions than smaller emergencies.

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