THE MAGAZINE

Responders, Private Sector Incommunicado

If a disaster strikes, it's imperative that local first responders be able to communicate effectively, first with each other, then with neighboring responders. But they must also communicate with local companies and representatives of federal agencies. A new survey shows that the first and second areas are in good shape, but the third and fourth remain fraught with problems.

The survey was conducted by The United States Conference of Mayors to determine the level of interoperability between jurisdictions and agencies, to identify obstacles that exist, and to gauge how much funding cities are receiving--or need to receive--to make interoperability ubiquitous.

More than 190 cities, from tiny Oak Brook, Illinois (population 8,702), to some of the largest metropolitan centers (including Chicago and Houston), representing 41 states provided data for the survey. The findings indicate that 77 percent of the cities have interoperable communications across their police and fire departments and that 74 percent are interoperable with neighboring city first responders.

But 88 percent reported that they are not interoperable with homeland security agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and 83 percent cannot communicate with Department of Justice groups such as the FBI. And 75 percent of responders have either not received or not been notified whether they will receive federal funds to facilitate interoperable communications.

The survey further revealed that communications with private-sector security are perhaps the weakest link. Ninety-seven percent of cities with a major chemical plant reported that "they have no interoperable capability between the chemical plant, police, fire, and emergency medical services." Cities with major rail and seaport facilities reported similar concerns, with 94 percent of the former and 92 percent of the latter unable to communicate among the various groups.

The obstacles to full interoperability? Money topped the list, with 77 percent of the respondents calling limited federal funding the greatest challenge. Some technical hurdles were noted as well: three-quarters of the respondents said they were hindered by "the use of different radio frequencies...between their city and adjacent regional cities and state government."

@ The Interoperability Survey by The United States Conference of Mayors is available at SMOnline.

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