Working to boost interoperability

Federal and local public safety officials are praising the Homeland Security Department's initiative to launch an umbrella office that will coordinate interoperability efforts for all types of equipment and related training.

Two weeks ago, DHS Secretary Tom Ridge announced the creation of the Office of Interoperability and Compatibility, which will focus on interoperable communications and other types of gear, training and equipment used by first responders.

"Within New York City, police department radios couldn't transmit to the fire department radios," Ridge said at an event last week, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "And when engine companies rushed in from nearby neighborhoods, they were often unable to help because the couplings that fit hoses to hydrants were incompatible." Creating such an office is a significant step, federal and local officials said.

"The idea of having a centralized Office of Interoperability and Compatibility is a good one," said Harlin McEwen, former Ithaca, N.Y., police chief and former deputy assistant director at the FBI.

"It addresses the need to look at the compatibility in not only communications equipment but also personal protective equipment and other kinds of things," said McEwen, who now works for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "So the fire and police community will enjoy that compatibility oversight."

The federal Safecom program, which establishes the national architecture, coordinates the federal activity and manages the standards regarding communications interoperability, will be placed within the new DHS office.

That's a good move, said David Boyd, a former Justice Department official who now leads the initiative. "Up until now, what's happened is that there have been a number of different sources of what we might call standardization, or efforts toward interoperability, whether it's communication or equipment," Boyd said.

"And so they haven't always been on the same sheet of music even though they may in fact have been federally driven," he said. "This is the first time that there's a genuine effort to say, 'Look, we at [the] federal level need to be [the] source of clear, coherent information and standards — not part of the source of the confusion.' "

Arlington County, Va., assistant fire chief James Schwartz said there are standards for many types of equipment, such as fire hoses and breathing apparatuses, and other communities will soon adopt those standards or already have.

"I think what the secretary has proposed is an office that is going to sort of set — from a strategic standpoint — how communities can go about ensuring that they do, in fact, have interoperability beyond just the communication piece," he said.

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