Public safety wireless experts talk the talk

Safecom Program Management Office

Five years from now, public safety officials nationwide still will not be able to automatically communicate with one another, experts predict. However, they should have laid the groundwork that will allow organizations to share information.

Attention in the government technology arena has shifted gradually during the past decade to developing plans or business cases before any investments or implementation. This has been an attempt to leave behind the big-money failures and stand-alone systems that officials are now working to overcome. Public safety officials, who usually cross multiple levels of government and jurisdictions, must agree on the plans, and they are still working on that concept.

"The equipment itself is a means to an end, not the end, and the really important part is being able to establish what the needs are, what the gaps are, and those needs themselves follow from a command incident structure," said William Jenkins, director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office. "If that foundation is not laid out, the equipment is almost irrelevant because even if you have the right equipment...if I call it 'red channel 2' and you call it 'purple channel 5,' we don't realize we can talk to each other."

Jenkins testified last month about public safety interoperability before the House Government Reform Committee's National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations Subcommittee.

That's not just a hypothetical situation. Officials in Los Angeles and San Diego counties found themselves in a bind when firefighters were trying to control massive wildfires, said Glen Nash, senior telecommunications engineer with the California Department of General Services.

Those two counties had upgraded to 800 MHz radios, while the rest of the state's public safety agencies were still using the old systems. The older radios used multiple frequencies, but none at the 800 MHz band. That meant that officials from L.A. and San Diego had to find a new solution to communicate with firefighters and other emergency response teams that came in to help, Nash said.

Officials from the two counties also had not agreed on a single channel to use to talk to one another, so they were out of touch for much longer than necessary, he said.

Getting to a point where everyone agrees on the incident procedures -- and on what everything is called -- should be easy when everyone concurs that public safety and protecting lives and property are top priorities, even without homeland security entering the picture. But it is still a struggle to get officials in neighboring jurisdictions to get past their history of disagreeing, said Stephen Devine, chairman of the State Interoperability Executive Committee for Missouri.

He has only recently been successful in getting officials in Kansas City and St. Louis to understand that "I don't really need for them to do the same thing. I just need to identify what each of them does [and] where there's commonality between them," said Devine, who is also the patrol frequency coordinator within the Missouri State Highway Patrol. "They don't have to necessarily do everything the same."

"It's all about planning and getting them involved -- not so much changing what people do, but finding out what they do, identifying it, laying it all out on the table and trying to find a common thread," he said.

Simply reaching a point where these issues are no longer barriers, however, is not the future picture of public safety communications interoperability that some lawmakers want.

"If we are to see all the progress be in terms of planning in five years, I'll consider that a gigantic failure," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), chairman of the subcommittee. "There's got to be more than planning."

The primary reason interoperability is not going to happen quickly, even now that resources and attention are focused on it at the highest levels, is that funding at the local levels, where the majority of communication happens, simply won't allow for fast change, officials said.

"We're all faced with the reality of government funding, and government funding at a local level where money is just not available," said Nash, who is also a former president of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials-International Inc.

"Local communities are going to have to come up with the money, they're going to have to make the decision of how to pay for this, which means that whatever strategy you develop has to be one that takes into account legacy equipment," said David Boyd, program manager for Safecom, the program at the Homeland Security Department leading the national push for wireless interoperability. "We can't leave it out even as we try to move in a coordinated direction to get to common systems."

***

A GUIDE TO GETTING ALONG

To help address policy questions and overcome resistance to cultural change, public safety officials developed a booklet titled "Public Safety Coordination and Partnerships Awareness Guide." The guide outlines the issues by looking at their causes, past actions and future needs:

What is the problem?

When public safety employees cannot communicate with one another by radio at accident or disaster scenes, the problem often reflects a lack of coordination. Public safety officials are sometimes reluctant to coordinate or share communications systems because of turf issues. Elected and appointed officials often do not fully understand the vital role interoperable communication plays. Local, tribal, state and federal agencies generally lack opportunities to share experiences, develop common approaches and identify best practices.

What has been done?

Government agencies at all levels are increasingly developing partnerships to support shared communications systems that improve interoperability, lower costs, and feature shared management and control. States also are beginning to establish executive-level committees to lead efforts to address interoperability issues.

What remains to be done?

Information about the benefits of coordinated communications should be broadly and actively shared at all levels. Local, tribal, state and federal agencies should form working groups or executive committees to coordinate interoperability activities, and government leaders should work with these groups by issuing appropriate policies or executive orders. Officials from associations that represent government or public safety executives should

be committed to supporting and working for interoperability.

Source: Homeland Security Department's Safecom Program Management Office

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above