Can you hear me now?

Homeland Security Department officials are preparing to unveil the first major contract to coordinate public safety wireless communications efforts across the government.

The broad agency announcement for SafeCom, which is expected to hit the streets by the end of the month, will seek technical interoperability solutions. Officials expect the announcement to result in awards to several vendors before the end of 2004, said Thomas Coty, director of technical solutions for SafeCom.

The announcement will be based on a statement of requirements developed using scenarios built by state and local

communities with assistance from the federal government, Coty said. The effort will start by focusing on primary first responders in law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services. Later it will include support for nontraditional first responders, transportation networks, utilities and others.

The organizational boundaries between agencies, and among local, state and federal public safety officials, have often been cited as stumbling blocks for any

interoperability solution. But the biggest breaking point in the past had been

the split among disciplines at the same level, said David Boyd, SafeCom program manager.

Each group has "different requirements because they're doing different kinds of things, and so that immediately produced confusion and made it difficult for policy-makers to figure out what to do," he said.

Culture differences among disciplines are entrenched, but they can be overcome. In Seattle, for example, the fire and police departments will likely not end up using the same computer-aided dispatch systems, said Dan Stilwell, senior fire department dispatcher for the city. But in Winston-Salem, N.C., the fire and EMS chiefs approached the police about inclusion in the same system, said Jerry Farris, director of the police department's information and technology division.

Having a true partnership at all levels is critical as the circle of agencies included in the network grows wider, said George Ake, program director for the Capital Wireless Integrated Network. Capital Wireless is an important regional testing ground for first responder wireless interoperability since it started bringing together public safety units throughout Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., in 1998.

"There has to be buy-in, there has to be a sense of ownership, there has to be governance," he said.

The SafeCom strategy relies on building those existing cross-jurisdictional

and cross-disciplinary situations, Boyd said.

The National Public Safety Telecommunication Council has served as the

primary discussion venue for state and local agencies. The statement of requirements should be finalized this week and be approved by the 56 regional planning councils throughout the country, Coty said.

The SafeCom program office has up to $6 million to distribute for the two to

four awards that officials expect to make at some point this summer. The winners will be solutions with some proven operational capability developed in close partnership with public safety organizations, Coty said.

"We're really looking for innovative, new approaches," he said.

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