DHS looking for communications gaps

Public Safety Communications and Interoperability Statement of Requirements

Homeland Security Department officials are about to tackle the problem of getting the nation's diverse first responders to talk to one another.

DHS officials plan to solicit bids later this month for a nationwide evaluation of public safety wireless communications. That assessment will be linked to short-term requirements for wireless communications, which were released earlier this year, to determine what new technology and policy changes are needed.

Officials in the Safecom program within DHS' Science and Technology Directorate oversee national efforts to coordinate public safety communications policies, practices and technologies. They coordinated efforts at all levels of government to develop the solicitation.

The new request for proposals will provide a research capability in the department that can be used for other functions later, said David Boyd, Safecom program manager.

"I would expect that we'll have an award before the end of this fiscal year, and we'll have the report back probably mid- to late-fiscal year next, in 2005," Boyd said last week in testimony before the House Government Reform Committee's National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations Subcommittee.

Completing a status assessment will not be enough to remove all the barriers that stand in the way of wireless interoperability, several public safety experts said at the hearing. Even initiatives intended to help can actually hinder, said William Jenkins, director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office.

Jenkins cited first responder and public safety grants. "The grants guidance itself, and the way that federal grants are structured, actually encourages the fragmented approach," he said. "They're part of the problem, not part of the solution."

Once a status assessment is completed, government officials will be able to move forward more quickly on technical and policy enhancements, Boyd said. Already, vendors are showing DHS how they are adapting their research to align products with the needs outlined in the statement of requirements, he said.

What has been missing is knowledge of where jurisdictions are now so that officials know exactly what needs to be done, said Stephen Devine, chairman of the State Interoperability Executive Committee for Missouri.

"Once the dialogue is created, I think we'll find that in many areas, [different jurisdictions] are not too far apart," he said.

The solicitation will specifically seek a partner to help Safecom officials formulate the best questions to analyze communications capabilities. The contractor will also help conduct the assessment, which will include interviewing people nationwide who are involved in wireless initiatives. Safecom officials are avoiding written questions because they want to get answers from the people doing the work, not simply from someone who had time to fill out a form, Boyd said.

Whether Safecom officials can meet the targets depends on the condition of DHS' Office of Interoperability and Compatibility, Jenkins said. DHS Secretary Tom Ridge created the office in May, and Safecom will join it by November.

However, it is impossible to tell what the office will be able to accomplish until officials straighten out "its structure, what its authority is, what the funding is," Jenkins said.

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SETTING THE BASELINE

An assessment of wireless communications interoperability, set to begin by the end of the year, will provide the first baseline of capabilities nationwide. It will allow Homeland Security Department officials to determine how to reach the goals outlined in the statement of requirements released in April. That document detailed the voice and data needs of public safety and emergency response organizations in four general areas:

Public safety operations.

Structure fire and wildfire suppression services.

Emergency medical services.

Law enforcement.

Source: Homeland Security Department

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