THE MAGAZINE

Defining “Interoperable” Communications

By Joseph Straw

In an address to state legislators earlier this year, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff assured the audience of marked progress in preparation for domestic terrorist attacks or natural disasters, stating that ten major U.S. cities had achieved communications interoperability.

Those ten cities—Boston, Chicago, Houston, Jersey City, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area—all fall under the Department of Homeland Security’s RapidCom program, launched in 2004.

Interoperability has been a concern since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, when emergency supervisors from other jurisdictions were forced to communicate by running notes. Later, the 9/11 Commission concluded that 121 of the 343 New York City firefighters killed in the Twin Towers on 9-11 might have escaped, but they did not hear orders to evacuate because of incompatibility between their radios and those of other agencies.

More than five years later, serious communication gaps remain a reality in most cities, including some cited by Chertoff as having achieved interoperability. Steven Jones, executive director of the First Response Coalition, an advocate for interoperability, notes that one problem is DHS’s definition of interoperability.

DHS classifies the cities as “interoperable” once they demonstrate that they can establish the capability for first-responders to exchange information within one hour, and only between management-level personnel, as opposed to rank-and-file first responders, says Jones.

“It’s not complete interoperability,” Jones says. “It’s only at the management level, so it’s not interoperability instantaneously between all responders.”

The roadblocks to achieving true interoperable communications nationally are technological, economic, and political, observers say.

Technologically, one problem is that the nation’s first responders currently communicate on ten separate segments—or bands—of the frequency spectrum. Currently, no hand-held radio is capable of covering all ten.

A potential solution is software-defined radio, or SDR, which is in development but not yet ready for the field, according to Tom Toleman of the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center.

Another approach would be for regulators to consolidate emergency communications in ultrahigh frequency (UHF) wavelengths no longer needed for traditional television broadcasting. With that goal in mind, President Bush signed legislation earlier this year requiring that broadcasters vacate channels 63, 64, 68 and 69 (746-806 MHz) but the problem, as many commentators have noted, is that it does not have to be implemented until February 17, 2009.

Another problem is that different manufacturers are installing proprietary systems—sometimes in neighboring jurisdictions. And rival administrators, jurisdictions, and agencies are resisting a shift to interoperability for fear of ceding authority, observers say.

Among the ten RapidCom cities that were highlighted by Chertoff, some have gone beyond what they were required to do, and they have indeed achieved a level of real-time interoperability among city agencies. For example, one solution implemented by the Houston metropolitan area and the multijurisdictional Washington, D.C., region, is for agencies to have a cache of interoperable radios that can be deployed during the response to an emergency situation.

Such individual municipal efforts, however commendable or effective on a local level, are piecemeal solutions. There is a need for an overarching national strategy to address the problem. But the sheer size of the nation makes that task daunting. As DHS spokesman Russ Knocke notes, there are roughly 50,000 individual public safety agencies nationwide to tie together.

“You’ve got to have cooperation; you’ve got to have coordination, not just with the state governments, but between local governments,” Jones says.

DHS has taken some steps to address the issue. Since its establishment in 2003, the agency has directed more than $2 billion toward interoperability. In addition, in 2004, as noted, it launched RapidCom, with the goal of fast-tracking high-risk urban areas to interoperability. And this year DHS initiated a long-promised audit of communications interoperability nationwide with the goal of assessing capabilities and needs, and eventually establishing a national strategy.

But critics say these actions are overdue and insufficient. In addition to the question of whether interoperability is being defined too narrowly, they note that the $2 billion in funding thus far directed to the problem is inadequate. Estimates for establishing interoperability nationwide run in the tens of billions of dollars, according to staff with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

In an attempt to address the shortfall, Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Ranking Member Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Connecticut) have coauthored a bill that would authorize $3 billion in federal spending over five years; it would also require development of a national strategy. But that bill, though it was reported out of the committee, is not expected to pass before Congress adjourns at the end of this year.

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