Too much at stake to wait
- By Brian Robinson
- Dec 01, 2002
With all the talk of weapons of mass destruction and war, it was a three-week shooting spree that brought real terror to American soil again, more than a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And for some, it was an example of just how far governments still have to go to shore up their homeland defenses. "It was a good evaluation of the [anti-terrorist] preparations that had supposedly been made," said John Cohen, president and chief executive officer of PSComm LLC, a Rockville, Md.-based company that specializes in public safety and security issues. "But it was obvious that 911, nonemergency phone and communication interoperability issues had not been addressed, despite all of the noise to the contrary."
After an airplane crashed into the Pentagon in September 2001, communications became a centerpiece of the metropolitan Washington, D.C., region's plans. Interoperability among key federal, state and District agencies is one priority, and developing a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week Regional Incident Communication and Coordination System is another.
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments released a regional emergency coordination plan Sept. 11 of this year, but it did not do much to prepare federal, state and local officials for the sniper hunt.
"We lost days in Montgomery County [Md.] due to a lack of coordination of multiple [law enforcement] agencies in different areas," Cohen said.
It's a scenario that haunts many other jurisdictions around the country, which is why better communications across government lines — city, county, state and federal — has been slated as a national priority. The President's Critical Infrastructure Protection Board called the development of a national enterprise architecture that would enable this type of coordination one of its "most important functions."
The hodgepodge of wireless communications systems is a good example. Congress still has to guarantee access to the 700-800 MHz range of the wireless spectrum that the 1996 Telecommunications Act set aside for use by emergency services.
That spectrum is due to be released in 2006, but there's still some question about it, according to Cameron Whitman, director of policy and federal relations for the National League of Cities.
"We are struggling with Congress about this right now," Whitman said.
Meanwhile, fire and police departments still operate on entirely different communications systems in many areas, though some have developed solutions that allow these systems to talk to one another.
But it's "all held together with baling wire and gum right now [because] no one sees any sense in putting together long-range plans until they know what's happening for sure," Whitman said. "That's been a big, big problem."
Another problem is a lack of money. The U.S. Conference of Mayors says cities around the country will spend a total of more than $2.6 billion in additional and mostly unbudgeted homeland security costs by the end of this year.
President Bush has proposed $3.5 billion for a "first responders initiative," but state and local governments so far have seen only about $100 million in federal funds wind its way down to them.
Many observers think it could be the second half of 2003 before any significant funding starts to flow. That creates a major dilemma for state and local governments, which are dealing with falling revenues and slashed budgets.
"Cities have to do what they have to do," said Ed Somers, chief of staff for the Conference of Mayors. "Each time [the federal Office of Homeland Security] goes to a higher alert status, for example, they have to put more people out onto the streets. But they also have to pay overtime for that, which means they won't have those funds to invest in technology down the road."
Governments "are not waiting [on the federal government] to protect their communities," he said, but they could do a lot more if those federal funds were available.
That's something Shelby Slater, director of homeland security and emergency management coordinator for the city of Detroit, would agree with.
Emergency services in Detroit operate on different wireless systems. The city has purchased the rights to use the 800 MHz spectrum and is developing a system based on that spectrum, which would be deployable by all services and would allow them to talk with one another.
But Slater is faced with a May 2003 deadline to show the spectrum is being utilized. Otherwise, the city will lose the rights to those frequencies.
"We need to identify funding sources now that would allow us to improve our wireless systems," he said. "We need between $50 million and $60 million, and money is tight, so we are looking to federal grants and earmarks from the state legislature."
In April, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick announced a 10-point action plan — one of the first in the country — that also proposes such things as closer links among currently stand-alone city government systems to allow for better data mining, upgrading of the Enhanced 911 and nonemergency phone systems, and a comprehensive emergency response strategy.
While Detroit is a border city, giving it particular concerns in addition to the "normal" security considerations of a sizable city, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley describes his city as more typical in terms of the vulnerabilities it faces. Officials there have been moving ahead on several fronts.
For example, Baltimore officials formalized a statewide security intelligence network by working with other law enforcement agencies and created a Web-based system to provide real-time reporting from hospitals, ambulances and school attendance and to track such occurrences as uncommon use of over-the-counter medicine.
The city also has used its geographic information system to expand a bio-alert system, using it daily to track things such as calls about respiratory ailments. And officials have scheduled real-time, computer simulation exercises of emergencies so that they can more clearly see where the weaknesses are in the city's defenses.
"We are doing that with our own money," said Aaron Greenfield, a special city solicitor with the mayor's office. "In the year since the Sept. 11 incidents, we spent $8 million to improve our security, with an additional capital improvement cost of $24 million to improve our water resources. We could certainly do more, however, if we had the money."
That's true even in states with long histories of handling major emergencies, such as California.
Soon after the Sept. 11 incidents, the state built the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center to collect and share relevant information among all of its law enforcement agencies. The center swaps information with terrorism "early warning groups" that cover major population areas in the state, as well as with FBI joint terrorism task forces.
On the technical side, the state is focusing on ensuring voice and data interoperability across the various networks that crisscross the state.
Florida, another state that has had to handle many major disasters, has reacted similarly by dividing the state among seven Regional Domestic Security Task Forces, each of which have responsibility for training and coordinating emergency response in its region. Government workers developed a statewide information system to integrate and analyze data and share that among the task forces.
The National Governors Association now wants to look beyond information sharing within states to see what's needed to make it work among states. The association recently formed a homeland security task force to determine the resources needed for that. The task force's work will include the development of several pilot projects aimed at improving information sharing among local, state and federal officials.
In introducing the projects, Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt, who co-chairs the task force with Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, said it's not enough that state and local governments have individually taken action on homeland security.
"No matter how well intentioned or how well funded these efforts are, it won't make much difference if they're not all connected and communicating," Leavitt said.
RAINS is a statewide coalition of technology companies involved in cybersecurity and homeland defense that is working with the state and local governments and academic institutions to use Oregon's already extensive fiber network as a test bed to accelerate development of homeland security products and solutions.
The goal of the Oregon Trial for Emergency and Security Technology (OTEST) will be a secure, high-bandwidth communications network that will link all of the silos of government and academic information that currently exist in the state with one another and with other vital emergency resources such as first responders.
"You don't need a big, new map for homeland security that is pushed down to the state and local level from Washington," said Charles Jennings, chairman and CEO of Swan Island Networks and chairman of RAINS. "What you need is a from-the-ground-up process that enables you to build a network of networks, one network at a time, that works much like the Internet, only this time much more securely."
Jennings expects a beta version of OTEST to be up and running in a few months, with the full version operational in about a year.
However, Jennings thinks the biggest innovation in RAINS may be the fact that the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department is the principal government sponsor of the coalition, rather than an organization more directly tied to homeland security, such as the police or a 911 center.
And that's because RAINS attacks two of the biggest concerns of the state through a single organization. It not only aims to provide secure, interoperable communication links for homeland defense, but it also could stimulate a technology sector badly hit by the current economic downturn. Anything developed and tested under RAINS could be sold directly to other state or local entities looking for proven homeland security products.
At least some observers feel that could be a way forward. By linking issues that matter more to them — such as economic growth and job creation — state and local governments also could settle many of their homeland security needs. Even better, those solutions could boost the effectiveness of the everyday services e-government delivers to citizens.
"If you can't provide that effective daily delivery of services, then it's unlikely you will be able to provide an adequate response to terrorism," said PSComm's Cohen. "The truth is that, from a local politics perspective, homeland security is not a top concern of the public. If it wasn't for the recent sniper attacks, many of these issues wouldn't be high on the agenda even in the Washington, D.C., area."
Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at email@example.com.