Interoperability: good locally, bad on a bigger scale

U.S. Conference of Mayors Interoperability Survey

Seventy-seven percent of cities nationwide report their police and fire departments have interoperable communication capabilities, while 74 percent report they can communicate seamlessly with neighboring first responder agencies, according to a new national report.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors released its findings today after surveying 192 cities about interoperability among government agencies and first responders, obstacles toward interoperability, and funding requirements.

Although interoperable communications, which refer to people's ability to talk seamlessly across various radio systems, have improved within cities, some communication problems with state and federal agencies still exist. Eighty-eight percent of the survey's respondents said they lacked interoperable communications with federal homeland security agencies, while 83 percent didn't have interoperability with the Justice Department agencies.

According to the survey, 49 percent to 60 percent of cities lack interoperability with various state agencies, including the police, emergency management and emergency operations. Eighty-six percent lack such capabilities with state transportation departments. Percentages were in the high 90s for lack of communications interoperability with among various critical infrastructures, such as chemical plans, seaports and rail facilities.

Many respondents also said millions of dollars are needed to get interoperable communications. Cities with fewer than 100,000 people need an average of $4.7 million. Those with more than 400,000 people will take about $30 million to achieve full interoperability. "The results of this survey underscore the role financial resources play in disaster response preparation," said David Wallace, mayor of Sugar Land, Texas, and the group's homeland security task force co-chairman, in a press release. "How best to get local first responders what they need tops our list of priorities, and we believe this survey points to interoperable delivery improvements that need to be made to the current process."

The mayors, who are meeting in Boston for their annual conference, also released a homeland security report June 25 that states that 52 percent of 231 cities surveyed have not received any federal homeland security money or were not notified through their states. Twenty-four percent had received money and another 24 percent were notified they would get money.

Mayors said the report shows some improvement in some areas, but more needs to be done. During the past three years, the group has been among the most outspoken about the lack of funds and the slow process in getting such monies.

Recently, a federal homeland security task force identified problems and outlined solutions in improving the flow of federal funds through the states to the cities. At least one major House bill has also been proposed to speed the funding process as well as better allocate money based on threat assessment and critical infrastructures rather than through population-based formulas.

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