Interoperability still plagues DHS

New report expected to hit agency for foot-dragging on communications

Six months after Hurricane Katrina struck, federal, state and local emergency responders still lack interoperable communications, emergency management technology experts say.

Richard Skinner, the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general, told the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee March 8 that the lack of interoperable communications equipment stymied much of the hurricane response effort.

Skinner’s office will soon release a new report, “A Review of DHS’ Progress in Adopting and Enforcing Equipment Standards for First Responders,” which will show that as of this month, DHS still has not adopted standards for interoperable communications equipment.

The most troubling fact is that the 2001 terrorist attacks revealed the urgent need for interoperable communications well before the 2005 hurricanes, said Herman Leonard, a professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and co-chairman of its crisis management program.

"Nearly five years after 9/11, this should not remain as challenging as it is," Leonard told the Senate committee.

Interoperable communications are essential for people, agencies and jurisdictions to share information and coordinate disaster response, Leonard said. “The modern form of the Tower of Babel is the failure to produce seamless interoperability among communications for agencies that might reasonably be expected suddenly to have to work together,” he said.

Experts agree that the technology for interoperability is available. Implementation challenges lie in other factors.

One difficulty is that people get amnesia about the need for interoperable communications as time passes between emergencies, said Morgan Wright, global industry solutions manager at Cisco Systems’ Justice and Public Safety division.

“You need to work on this as if you knew that something will happen tomorrow,” Wright said. “Someone needs to own the sense of urgency for government and get this done.”

Any standards must allow technology to adapt to policies that agencies adopt for interoperable communications, said Peter Erickson, vice president of business development for CoCo Communications.

The lack of technical standards isn’t as important as the lack of planning at the state and local level, said Bruce Baughman, director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency and president of the National Emergency Management Association.

Baughman said the first thing he asks people who say they have an interoperable communications problem is whether they have a communications plan. Nine out of 10 don’t, he said.

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