Homeland, governors linking up

The Homeland Security Department is on the verge of connecting 26 governors' offices with the department for secure videoconferencing in the event of another terrorist attack.

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, federal, state and local officials complained that no secure communications network existed to keep them informed or help coordinate an emergency response. But now, the new department is opening up a network to communicate with the nation's governors in the event of a crisis.

Steve Cooper, the department's chief information officer, told Federal Computer Week this week that the hookups were selected by determining how far a governor has to travel from his or her office to the state's emergency operations center. Priority goes to the ones with the longest distance.

"This capability will allow classified conversations between Secretary [Tom] Ridge and the governors," Cooper said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Guard, two agencies that have both local and federal responsibilities in emergencies, have done the work to create a seamless communications network in the event of an emergency.

Otto Doll, South Dakota's CIO, said March 12 that a facility was installed in his state two months ago, but on March 6, officials put in place a second facility at a secure location at the state capital.

"There were certain requirements for where it had to be," Doll said. And FEMA, which was handling the installation, wanted the facility closer to the governor's office.

Rock Regan, Connecticut's CIO, said his state also was in the process of planning its hookup.

"The intent is to allow the governors to have televideo and secure access to the Department of Homeland Security and Secretary Ridge," Regan said.

During normal workdays, the states and territories will be able to use the videoconferencing when needed.

"We have enabled the dual-purpose capability at no additional cost to the taxpayer," Cooper said.

The remaining governors' offices will be linked as soon as the department gets more funding, he said.

Faced with a tight budget and deficit spending, Congress nevertheless has made sure there is money for interoperable communications systems in the fiscal 2003 budget.

Ridge told a meeting of the National League of Cities March 10 that funding includes $25 million to help states and localities modernize their emergency operations centers and $20 million for the Community Emergency Response Training program.

Another $25 million is included for interoperability improvements so that first responders can communicate on the same frequencies, he said.

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