DOJ, DOD stress self-powered communications

If Hurricane Katrina taught first responders anything, it’s that communications systems must survive a natural disaster before they can be used to coordinate response efforts.

That’s what officials from the Defense and Justice departments told Congress today as they explained some of the steps they are taking to improve information sharing before the 2006 hurricane season starts June 1.

“The survivability of our systems is critical,” Vance Hitch, DOJ’s chief information officer, told the House Government Reform Committee.

The federal government must work with industry to create self-powered communications technology that can operate without traditional infrastructure, said Linton Wells, principal deputy assistant secretary of Defense for networks and information integration.

“The federal government must continue to expand its capability to rapidly deploy commercial off-the-shelf networks, making use of satellite links, wireless local-area networks, laptop computers and ‘plug-and-play’ equipment to bridge the gap created by a devastated civil infrastructure,” Wells said in a statement.

Common operating standards and equipment are the long-term solution to interoperable communications in disaster response, Hitch said. The Justice, Homeland Security and Treasury departments are making progress toward implementing such standards through the Integrated Wireless Network (IWN), he said.

A communications system for 80,000 federal law enforcement officers nationwide, IWN will improve the departments’ ability to communicate with one another by having them use common standards and equipment, Hitch said.

The participating agencies have almost finished procurement for IWN and expect to award a contract soon, he said. The agencies plan to roll the program out over five years.

IP, which bridges formerly incompatible systems, is an advance in communications interoperability that can be used more quickly, Wells said.

Better coordination at the federal, state and local levels is also necessary to improve information sharing, said Peter Verga, principal deputy assistant secretary of Defense for homeland defense.

To prepare for the 2006 hurricane season, DOD has assigned a strategic planner to DHS and is reviewing other employees assigned to DHS to ensure the right people are in place, Verga said.

DOD is working with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency to develop a system to acquire reconnaissance data of initial damage conditions, Verga said.

The department is helping other agencies revise the National Search and Rescue Plan, and working to provide state National Guard forces with more information about military deployments during disaster response, Verga said.

A main area that needs improvement is social networks among different first responder groups, Wells said. All first responders should train and exercise together to create trusted relationships across disciplines and form bonds that facilitate communication in crisis situations, he said.

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