Boots and suits

Although interoperable communication — the ability for first responders from different jurisdictions to talk with one another — has been a major national goal, governments have been slow to act on it, said Costis Toregas, president of Public Technology Inc., a national technology research organization for local governments.

"Although people pay lip service to it, we're not seeing overall vision to interoperability in the expenditure package," he said.

There hasn't been consistency in how those funds have been spent. Some homeland security experts say local governments have spent a good deal of federal funds on "boots and suits" — equipment, gear and training for emergency

personnel.

From a first responder perspective, the boots and suits are critical, said Neal Pollard, a senior director with Hicks and Associates Inc., which is spearheading a first responder needs assessment project for the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism and the Terrorism Research Center Inc.

"They've got problems to deal with today," he said. "Yes, it's possible they're going to have a catastrophic terrorism attack in their jurisdictions within the next two years. That is a possibility, but it's a probability that Mother Nature is going to throw something nasty at them."

That probability means the federal government should focus on homeland security from an all-hazards perspective to help first responders deal with hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and tornadoes, too. "You cannot give a firefighter a locker for terrorism and a locker for everything else you're going to have to deal with," Pollard said.

Another reason first responders tend to focus on boots and suits is their limited exposure to developing technologies. "If their procurement cycle is 18 months and the next-generation widget comes out in 19 months, then absent some sort of unique insight into that industry or some special contact or they happen to work with a lab, they're not going to know they should wait one more month for procurement," Pollard said.

There needs to be greater collaboration and communication between first responders, who can convey their needs and capabilities, and technology researchers and developers, who can describe new technologies or modify their investments to meet those needs, he said.

Although boots and suits are needed, Thom Rubel, META Group Inc.'s director of state information technology programs, said, "there's also a feeling among states that it hasn't been strategic enough. I think the general sense is that so far more has been spent on response and not enough on prevention. And that's the harder part."

For example, he said some state and local governments are at different stages of deploying interoperable communications systems. Some local officials have already invested in systems and can't wait for state decisions on a common platform, which signifies that they lack a governance plan or have a poor one in place.

"I really honestly think that strategic planning and governance [are] going to take at least a couple of years to get in sync here," he said.

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